Julia Westerbeke, artist
Proxy, 2014 (detail), Ink on paper, foam, wood shadow box, photo by J May Studio
Julia Westerbeke’s exhibit MORPHOLOGY closes September 28 at AIR Gallery in Brooklyn. She generously shares with LFF about growing up in a creative family, her inspirations from science to relationships, why she enjoys creating installations, feminist discussion and her work, advice for aspiring artists and more…
Where are you from? How did you get into art?
It’s hard to pinpoint an exact moment, since for me, growing up in a liberal Bay Area family, art wasn’t so much discovered as it was inherited. In my community, the creative act was kind of like routine exercise: intrinsically healthful, useful and developmentally important. My grandmother was involved in the Human Potential movement that began in the 1970s, and she championed the Waldorf education model of spectrum-based learning, which placed a high importance on pictorial and hands-on knowledge. Closer to home, my father is a musician and my mother is a fashion designer. Childhood memories of exploring towering archives of lace and playing on fabric knolls at my mother’s studio undoubtedly influenced the textural and patterned works I make today.
Rind, 2014, Ink on acetate, white-wax glue, foam, wood, 20” x 12” x 3.5”, photo by J May Studio
Tell me about your inspirations, process.
Drawings are the fundamental building blocks of my practice. Often, I create templates of ink-on-paper and ink-on-vellum renderings, which I then hand-cut and collage into detailed reliefs, sculptures and installations. The imagery is largely biomorphic and semi-abstract, drawing inspiration from science fiction and biological illustrations to create works that entangle fantasy and fact. The outcome is organic, but also somewhat alien and other. Ultimately my goal is to create visceral works with a familiar-yet-foreign dynamic, which speaks to our complicated relationship with nature and the body. This relationship shifts, rather continually, between states of intimacy and alienation, closeness and otherness. Sometimes we are in our skin, and sometimes we are not. Sometimes we exist within an ecosystem; sometimes we separate as autonomous units. On a related note, I am interested in abstraction as a catalyst for the imagination. My hope is that these works serve as a prompt for the viewer, a discussion that he or she will take up and continue, either internally or externally.
Installation shot (featuring Stem II and Seam), Morphology Exhibition at A.I.R. Gallery, photo by J May Studio
Tell me about your current/upcoming show and why it’s important to you
For the past few years, I have been primarily focused on installations, that is, building environments that exist in the viewer’s space. I was— and still am— drawn to the idea of removing barriers between the viewer and the work, and installations do that quite literally. Really, I think a lot of artists revel in the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle: the idea that the viewer affects what is being viewed. In installations, the viewer/participant is the final, physical component of the work. But in this new series, I wanted to see if I could move away from environments and even further towards microcosms. I created a series of shadow boxes and discrete artworks that served as terrariums for the organic imagery. Here, there is a sort of membrane between viewer and art, certainly permeable but still separate. It’s more of a mental exploration, less physically direct but still somatic, haptic, i.e. of the body. One vertical shadow box, Proxy, measures to my height and around the width of my shoulders. Another, related sculpture is the height of my husband. The dimensions of Core, a smaller cube-like shadow box, roughly correlate to the size of a human head. In all of these works, bodily proportions and organic imagery coalesce with visceral materials (drips of paint and lava-like spills of glue) to create a sort of corporeal entropy. Even though these works are more contained than my previous installations, there is still an unraveling at the edges, a proverbial thread for the viewer to pull. Tightly rendered and intricate drawings often spin off into looser or more hurried gestures of mark-making across the expanse of a composition. It’s all happening on a quiet and subtle level, at a minute scale.
Stem II, 2014, Ink on paper, black-wax glue, wood molding, frame, 11” x 21” x 1”, photo by J May Studio
Do you think your city is a good place for women in art?
When I was eighteen, I moved to New York to attend Barnard, a women’s college that’s part of Columbia University. Barnard was such a game changer for me as an artist and thinker. What was before a creative habit became an intellectual commitment; art and ideas formed a symbiotic relationship and I was hooked. So my experience in New York began within a community of strong, interesting and interested women. Years later, I taught at Barnard, and I have remained close with a supportive, collaborative (and I would go so far as to say crucial) network of alumnae, professors and former students who exhibit, curate, direct, teach and write. Now, as an A.I.R. Gallery artist, I get to work with generations of women, many of whom have built their practices for decades. So, as with anywhere, and perhaps especially within the spectrum of the New York art world, community is key.
On a larger scale, it’s difficult to make sweeping statements, but I’m particularly interested in the feminist discussions that are being furthered in the press right now. Jerry Saltz recently noted the dearth of solo exhibitions by women artists in the city. The Brooklyn Rail just came out with an issue devoted to gender equity in the art world, which features an essay by A.I.R. artist Susan Bee.
Installation shot (featuring Hypnagogia II and Core), photo by J May Studio
Artist Wanda Ewing, who curated and titled the original LFF exhibit, said of her work “I’ve been making provocative art with a political edge in my midwestern hometown since 1999. And to do that, you have to be tenacious as hell.” Are you tenacious in your work or life? How so?
Anyone who continues to put him or herself out there through creative work is tenacious. It is an act that requires tenacity, a strong sense of self, and the ability to occasionally pick-up-and-dust-off that sense of self after, say, a toxic studio visit.
Hypnagogia II , 2014 (detail), Ink on paper, 58” x 43”, photo by J May Studio
Does feminism play a role in your work?
There is definitely a celebration of the feminine embedded into my artistic language, which is tied to my interest in pattern, ornamentation and organic forms. So I would say feminist by way of the feminine.
Core, 2014, Ink on vellum, plastic, acrylic paint, wood shadow box, 10” x 10” x 4”, photo by J May Studio
Ewing’s advice to aspiring artists was “you’ve got to develop the skill of when to listen and when not to;” and “Leave. Gain perspective.” What advice do you have for aspiring artists?
Form an intimate knowledge of your fundamental, baseline beliefs, interests and passions as an artist, then do your best to experiment and evolve ad infinitum.
For more information on AIR Gallery visit airgallery.org. http://airgallery.org/artists/julia-westerbeke/#0_1
Les Femmes Folles is a completely volunteer run organization founded in 2011 with the mission to support and promote women in all forms, styles and levels of art with the online journal, anthologies, books, exhibitions and events; originally inspired by artist Wanda Ewing and her curated exhibit by the name Les Femmes Folles (Wild Women). LFF was created and is curated by Sally Deskins. LFF Books is a micro-feminist press that publishes 1-2 books per year by the creators of Les Femmes Folles including Intimates & Fools (Laura Madeline Wiseman, 2014). Other titles include Les Femmes Folles: The Women 2011, 2012 and 2013, available on blurb.com, including art, poetry and interview excerpts from women artists. A portion of the proceeds from LFF books and products benefit the University of Nebraska-Omaha’s Wanda Ewing Scholarship Fund.