Making in the Not-Knowing

The Sculpture and Drawing of Jen Aitken

In the following conversation the Toronto-based sculptor Jen Aitken stresses the importance of intuition as “a valuable form of knowledge and expertise.” She sees it as having a double register: for her as an artist, it’s a way of making, and for us as viewers, it’s a way of perceiving. “I’m pushing against interpretation and resisting recognition,” she says, adding that she is constantly searching for what she calls a “distancing of familiarity.”

At the same time that she is committed to the idea of each piece’s retaining a sense of unfamiliarity, she has no interest in pushing the work in the direction of radical destabilization. Negotiating this two-directional space is where her sculpture and drawing are strongest. As a result she employs form and colour to generate shapes that are congenial in their interrelationships and soothing in their palette. She will use infusions of red or lavender or blue foam that cause small eruptions of colour to peek through on the surface.

Jen Aitken, Untitled Drawing 21, 2013, ink on paper, 36 x 30 inches. All images courtesy the artist.

The tonal shifts from a base that has a greenish tint to a grey cap in Yna, or the combination of smoky floats of greenish pigment with yellow accents in Minapok from the “Poda” series, are examples of the subtlety of her colour orchestration. From one side Minapok looks like a woman’s sturdy high-heeled shoe; from another it’s a stand-in for a brutalist architectural plaza. This changing perspective is especially compelling. You often feel that the sculptures are precariously balanced; then, as you move around them, you realize that they are solidly rooted. This latter quality makes the pieces seem involved in a condition of self-regard: they don’t mind that we engage in an intuitive gambit with their presence, but they don’t need us in order to do so.

Aitken’s drawings, too, are a significant part of her practice and they are ongoing. She says drawing is “a way to make forms faster,” and she is particularly interested in the “peripheral spaces” generated out of that velocity. All the drawings are untitled and they have a number of different looks: the pen-and-ink drawings from 2013 nod in the direction of the craggy awkwardness of late Guston; the ink drawings from 2016 delineate one space at the same time that they create a completely new space; while the ink-on-vellum series from 2018 connects a pattern of surface lines with an insinuation of sunken lines. They suggest that the drawing is, additionally, going on somewhere else. The drawing is, and is a memory.

Jen Aitken says she doesn’t trust things that come too easily. Using her own measure of hard work leading to the comfort of the unfamiliar, makes her a thoroughly trustworthy artist.

Untitled Drawing 68, 2018, ink on vellum, 33 x 25 inches.

The following interview was conducted in the artist’s studio in Toronto on September 12, 2018.

Jen Aitken: I was born in Edmonton and grew up in Toronto. After high school I went to Ryerson for two years in fashion because I wanted to make clothing. In hindsight, I think my real interest was in the two-dimensional plane of fabric’s becoming a three-dimensional form. I loved the rigour of pattern drafting. It’s not that different from what I’m doing now where I assemble flat shapes in three-dimensional space. So when I started making sewn fabric sculptures, it was because the thin plane of fabric is essentially all surface and no volume. I could deal with the volume as a total form, it wasn’t interrupted by the thickness of plywood or some other third variable. And later I could transition into casting, because that’s dealing with essentially all volume and no surface. The surface is created by some other, absent plane. After two years at Ryerson, I realized there wasn’t enough critical discussion about what it means to put on clothing, or what makes a good design versus a bad design. I thought I could explore those questions more in art school. I took my first sculpture class in my second year at Emily Carr and thought, “Okay, this is my place.”

Border Crossings: We might as well get right to the elephant that’s always in the sculptural room for you, and that’s the question of brutalist architecture. Was there something about that style of architecture that interested you and then your art began to reflect something of that materiality

Kaesix, 2018, fibre-reinforced concrete, 37 x 17 x 28 inches.

The art definitely came first. I work from an intuitive place more than a rational place, so I think I was drawn to concrete as a material and to this particular way of making forms. Once I started working, then I noticed that obvious connection. And growing up in Toronto and being around these concrete buildings my whole life, this visceral, tactile connection to a cast concrete building was baked into me.

You have said that you find concrete ridiculous and absurd, as well as practical. In recognizing its absurdity, was there also an appreciation of its beauty?

Yes, the beauty is about a roughness or immediacy. You can instinctively feel its weight and density. It’s more visceral than optical. I also like the labour of it; I like the hard work. I don’t trust things that come too easily.

Take me through the making of a piece from idea to execution.

With the solid cast work, I might start with a peripheral idea of some physical gesture in space, like something low and clinging to the ground. Oppik (2016) started with the idea of two off-kilter curves cupping together, like a twisted clamshell. Actually that piece came from an image I took, while walking, of the scoops of two backhoes nestled together. Things that I see filter into a vague starting image and then the final form will deviate from that beginning. Sometimes I’ll start with a cast-off or a reject component from a piece that’s already been finished. So in Galomindt (2016), for instance, the yellow component on the bottom was originally constructed to go with another piece. And even though I make paper maquettes and think through each form before I cast it, sometimes I have to pull the sculpture apart and start all over because it’s not working. My favourite ones have been agonized over. I like to think of the cast-off components as ready-mades: forms that already exist in their particular sculptural world.

…to continue reading the interview with Jen Aitken, order a copy of Issue #148, or SUBSCRIBE today!

Volume 37, Number 4: Women + Sculpture

This article originally appeared in Border Crossings #148, published December 2018.

Border Crossings looks at contemporary art with interest, passion and thoroughness. Subscribe to Border Crossings today for as little as $24/year.