Artists Mark Friday and Deborah Jang on Play, Collaboration, and the Unexpected Surprises of Working in Assemblage
- On November 2, 2017
Mark Friday and Deborah Jang see things–objects–differently. They work in a medium called assemblage, using found objects (that some might consider “junk”) to create art pieces. Yet for these artists, apparently useless objects have a spark of life in them–a brilliant capacity for reincarnation as an art object, a sculptural self-portrait, or an interactive installation.
I (Julia Dillard, Art Gym’s Outreach Director) had the pleasure of wandering through their studios and talking with them about what it’s like to see these objects through their eyes, and how play and improvisation keep their work exciting.
Mark and Deborah are partners in life and collaborators in art, yet each with an individual approach. Their independent studios are as unique as they are–and they laugh about how impossible it would be for the other to work in their studio space.
Mark’s studio is a maze of shelves and tables stacked with instruments, clocks, pans, weathervanes, and metal whachyamacallits. Painted chairs from a 1950’s child’s ferris wheel hang upside-down from the ceiling. The walls are covered in faces–portraits made of birdcages and rulers, washboards and tin cans.
Deborah’s studio is more open, everything on tables within arms’ reach. Boxes, drawers and racks contain various categories of things–aerosol paints shelved shoulder-to-shoulder like a small battalion, gardeners’ gloves resting together like a basket of fish, discarded toys blinking bright colors from the end of a workbench.
While each studio is distinct, they both contain an air of possibility, as if the objects you’re surrounded by might just come to life when you’re not looking.
“The way I think of art-making as improvisational is that I very rarely plan out a piece. I don’t sketch it out, or figure out exactly what I want and how it’s going to come together. I like to work pretty much flying by the seat of my pants. ” – Deborah
Photo: Beginnings of a collaborative, site-specific installation for Dark Fang – an exhibition of Mark and Deborah’s work coming to Art Gym this November.
Julia: What is it about assemblage and working with found objects that each of you feel connected to?
Deborah: I like that you never know what’s gonna come up. So, the surprise element–you can’t even try to imagine. Sometimes I think maybe a particular kind of piece from an object might work, but there’s always something beyond that, different than that, that comes up.
Mark: Yeah, it’s kind of a fun challenge to see what you can come up with from different objects–to ignore their old purpose and give them a new purpose. Plus, it’s kind of a collaboration. You’re dealing with the manufactured world that’s out there, so that’s your collaborator, that which has been produced already. You’re just transforming it into something else.
Deborah: I also think there’s all that history and mystery there in the object, and it’s also a collaboration with time. A lot of our surfaces are distressed from aging over time.
“I like that you never know what’s gonna come up. The surprise element–you can’t even try to imagine. Sometimes I think maybe a particular kind of piece from an object might work, but there’s always something beyond that, that comes up.”
Julia: I’m so curious what it would be like to go into a garage sale and see objects through your eyes. What’s it like when you are out looking for objects?
Deborah: There have been times when I’ve been in the middle of a project, and I’ve thought “I need a circle.” So, I’ll run down to the thrift shop, and I don’t even pay attention to what it is, I just look at the size and the diameter. And it’s fun, because you don’t know what’s gonna work, so it’s the discovery.
Mark: Sometimes I’ll see something in a thrift store, and I’ll see something in the center of it that I can use, so I have to extract that part out of the entire structure. And I think that just takes practice visualizing things. I don’t necessarily think you can do that right away, but when you start working in this medium, you spend more time looking at things and seeing what they can become, seeing parts of things.
“Sometimes I’ll see something in a thrift store, and I’ll see something in the center of it that I can use, so I have to extract that part out of the entire structure…When you start working in this medium, you spend more time looking at things and seeing what they can become.“
Julia: What other ways do objects come into your life? Do you always find the objects, or do you think they find you sometimes?
Deborah: Once, I was doing a show and I was putting together this big sculpture, and I had imagined boats. I thought “I just need a loooonng shape, like a canoe,” and I thought, “It would be neat if it was red.” So, one morning I woke up, and I look in the alley, and went “I think that’s a red canoe…” I didn’t have my glasses on, so I ran and got them and looked, and said “It is a red canoe!” My neighbor had put it out there for large-item pick up week, and I just happened to look out into the alley. Then I said to myself, “You know, I think there’s really a god!” So that’s kind of the fun of the work. That story, I always have to keep going back to it.
Julia: Does that happen often, when you need something and you put it out there and it just materializes?
Deborah: I have these metaphysical head games I play with myself. Like, once we went for a walk, and Mark got tired so we sat down, and while we were sitting I saw this cool chair in the creek. But if he hadn’t gotten tired, if we hadn’t turned that corner, then would I have ever seen that chair? You know, so I like to think things like that. I think that it might be a miracle. A small miracle.
Julia: When you collaborate on a piece like the one you’re working on for Art Gym, how does it work between you?
Mark: When we started, one of us would start the piece, and then say “Here, now you work on it.” And then the other one would work on it a little bit and then give it back. We just traded off. And that presents interesting challenges because all of a sudden there’s stuff on the piece that you started that’s unexpected, and suddenly you have to deal with that. But, you also don’t want to offend the other artist by saying “I don’t like what you did, and I’m gonna cover it up.” So, you have to go with it, enhance it, and add something new to it, then pass it back.
Deborah: Yeah, and you have to play off each other. For this project, we went around the yard and started pulling out stuff that looked interesting, that we’ve always wanted to use, like the arrow, the sousaphone parts, you know…I guess we are a little compatible. But, we’ll be just as surprised as you all when we bring it in!
“I thought ‘I just need a loooonng shape, like a canoe…it would be neat if it was red.’ So, one morning I woke up, and I look in the alley, and went, ‘I think that’s a red canoe…’ I didn’t have my glasses on, so I ran and got them and looked, and said ‘It is a red canoe!’…Then I said to myself, ‘You know, I think there’s really a god!'”
Julia: Where did the interactive elements in your work come in – did this start from one or both of your work? Where did the interactivity in your work evolve from?
Deborah: That’s part of the play, for me. And because we are using found objects, sometimes the interactivity is just right there, and you hate to lose it. And I don’t think of the work as precious, I want people to touch it and play with it. Sitting under a glass case is not where you’d find my stuff. Sometimes people are trained not to touch, and you have to un-train ‘em.
Mark: You have to let them know it’s okay. That’s why I put wheels on things, so it’s obvious that this is something that maybe turns. But you still have to tell them. I think for me, the reason I started doing it [interactive work] was because I would think “Should this be over here, or should I put it over there?” And then I started to think, “Well maybe it can be in both places. It can be over here, and then it can shift over to the other side,” so you have that option.
Julia: Deborah, I’ve been reading about your work, and it seems like there’s this theme of play and improvisation that you talk about in some of your past shows. I really want to hear you say more about that. Did you ever do any improv or acting? Where does that connection come from for you?
Deborah: Um, I’ve never done acting on a stage, and I doubt that I will, hahaha (laughs heartily). I guess the way I think of art-making as improvisational is that I very rarely plan out a piece. I don’t sketch it out, or figure out exactly what I want and how it’s going to come together. I like to work pretty much flying by the seat of my pants. So, it helps to have big piles around so that you can pool as needed, or a car that works so you can run down to the store. I guess I like to keep the options open.
“That’s the excitement–not knowing what the next step is. If there’s still some opportunity for new things to happen, it keeps me energized.”
Mark: That’s the excitement–not knowing what the next step is. Once I start putting together a piece, when I’ve already figured out what it’s gonna look like, it kind of loses some of its magic. But if there’s still some opportunity for new things to happen, it keeps me energized.
Julia: It sounds like you do a lot of problem-solving, but then there’s also this element of play and experimentation. What is the relationship between those two things, for you?
Mark: That’s a good point, you are using two different elements, the playful part where you’re conceiving of the pieces, and then you get down to business and actually put it together. It’s like a different part of your brain that is activated there, to figure out how all these things are gonna physically be joined together.
Deborah: I think the play for me is in the designing. And then the problem solving is in making it fit together. I mean, sometimes the problem solving is figuring out the right design element in the whole scheme of things. But often the problem solving is more like “Oh, where’d I put the hammer?” (chuckles)
Mark: Oops, you attached it to the piece by mistake! (chuckles)
Julia: Or maybe by happy accident?
Deborah: There’s lot of happy accidents, haha.