Puppy Cerberus. Or, What Is Art?

Jenna and I are in her car driving across town to pick up some printed folders from Jesse Olanday at Space 1026. All kinds of stuff goes on at Space 1026, which I will describe as a cooperative artists’ space on Arch Street in Philadelphia’s Chinatown, although, according to its website, that’s way too simple an explanation. “Space 1026 has been a 13 year experiment,” the site explains. “It has developed from a handful of founders to dozens of co-conspirators.” Also, “Space 1026 is not a collaboration! Yes it is! No its not! Yes it is! Exactly.”
Miranda: 1026entryA

Entry to Space 1026

Printmaking is definitely a big piece of what happens at Space 1026. Jesse, who has been part of the place for a decade, gives us a tour, showing us the exhibition space, the printing vacuum table, the exposure rack. “I went to school with the guys who started this. The were inspired by a Live/Work/Venue space of fellow RISD students called ‘Fort Thunder’ in Providence, Rhode Island,” he says. “This used to be a jewelers, so we have vaults.” One vault is for flammable stuff, and they do their coating in another. He takes us up to the third floor, which was condemned until 1999 but today holds artists’ studios, high shelves crammed with LPs (part of the building used to house a recording studio), and all kinds of miscellaneous mysterious equipment. Jesse knocks on a door and we go in to find Thom Lessner, an artist and member of ICA’s installation crew, drawing. He holds up what he’s working on to show us:

“A farting centaur!”
Miranda: 1026-CentaurA

Photo: Jenna Weiss

Jenna, a painter and ICA’s Spiegel Fellow working with programs, asks, “Do you always draw sitting down?”

“Yeah,” Thom says. “That’s why I’m hunched over like this.”

On the way over in the car, I asked Jenna a lot of questions about her painting, her teachers at the Tyler School of Art where she got her MFA, and her excitement about making programs, which she sees as another mode of art-making. We talked about the Big Questions: How do you hold on to what’s essential to you as an artist? What is the relationship of an artist to her studio? Where do object-oriented artists fit into an increasingly conceptual contemporary aesthetic? As usual, these questions proved resistant to easy answers. Now, listening to her chat with Thom, I think maybe the Road to Truth lies through these little questions instead.

Jesse digs up some chairs, and we sit down to talk about his design of Cerberus, the three-headed puppy, which has become ICA’s most coveted T-shirt design.
Miranda: 1026-dog-foldersA

Miranda: 1026-dog-foldersA

“I got that image from a puppy calendar,” Jesse says. “You know you get these free calendars?” This was in 2006, when Jesse, as part of Space 1026, participated in ICA’s exhibition Locally Localized Gravity which invited artists and artists’ groups to create installations and host creative public programs. Jesse had been looking for an idea for a screen printing event. In the calendar photo, three puppies rushed pell-mell toward a bowl of food. “I thought it would be cool if four of the legs were gone, and it was a Cerberus.”

“Why do you think it’s so popular?”

“”I think it’s got the attitude you want in a shirt,” Jesse says. “Cute and tough.”

“Succinct without being logo-y,” Jenna says.

I ask Jesse to tell me about himself and his association with ICA. “I started as a gallery preparator in 2002,” he says. “When I got to Philadelphia I was renovating houses in Northern Liberties, and ICA was short-handed installing the Rudy Gernreich show. It was perfect for me at the time. Back then the installs were long and really intense.” He could do an install for ICA, save his money, and then do his own work for three months. Also, “it was a good way to learn the inner workings of a gallery to bring back here to 1026.” He gestures around the room. “I rebuilt this gallery more professionally with the techniques I learned at the ICA—everything was square and true and solid.”
Miranda: 1026-JesseA

Miranda: 1026-JesseA

Now Jesse does custom screen work and animation for various clients and runs his own art handling business. I realize I don’t quite understand to what extent Jesse is an artist and to what extent he is a designer, or custom printer, or whatever, and I’m trying to figure out if it’s okay to ask. Finally I put together some words basically inquiring whether he does much of his own art these days, and he indicates that he doesn’t: “It’s really tiring.” I guess that means that what he does now is less tiring—or maybe just less tiring to the soul, since he also describes doing print runs of a 1,000 pieces by hand.

And here I am again, stumbling into one of those Big Questions: What is the difference, really, between art and design? In other words: What Is Art?

I think about Jenna talking about programs as art, and how making programs was part of the artistic project of Locally Localized Gravity too. Is art anything an artist says it is? Is it the job of curators and museums to decide? ICA has a history of presenting exhibitions of design, so we have likely done our part to blur the boundaries. Or maybe the point is to ask the questions and not worry too much about the answers? These mysteries and confusions spiral through my head like the summer heat, and when they clear this is what I’m left with:

An image of Jesse standing in the organized anarchy of 1026, looking at the puppy calendar and seeing something else beyond it, something he might shape with his own particular vision. Intuiting possibilities invisible to everyone else.

Note: When I showed a draft of this post to Jesse, he sent me the following response:

When I joined 1026, I aimed towards a fine arts / gallery career. For me, it was exciting, uncharted territory. There was a freedom to make and create. I made (or made attempts at) anything that came to mind. After about the sixth year of pursuing that path, my priorities slowly shifted though. I felt accomplished and the drive to make “fine-art” relaxed. Not that I was out of ideas but rather I felt satiated in that respect. I felt that the challenges had been met, and the fulfillment of the pursuit dwindled. That was roughly around the time of the ‘Locally Localized’ exhibit. I managed the 1026 team and worked on most of the exhibit design and construction. It was a huge undertaking and felt like a great send off to that aspect of my life.

Also around then my standard of living became more of a priority, and grown-up responsibilities (like handling bills) became more vital. I began concentrating efforts on business, production and more on technical craft. There was a new challenge. I pumped the brakes on gallery shows and personal work. I worked at being more professional in production and in business relations. Working in various disciplines gave a wider perspective and relevance to the aspect of making art.

Full circle a few years after that, I became proficient in the administrative side of art-business and eventually bored of that as well. The thought of making art for art’s sake became appealing again. The creative side and logistical side are now second nature, and in that, I feel a second wind. I am starting to get back into creating more personal work. Learning better time management and when to step back/away is crucial this time around to avoid the burn out.

Creative work takes a long time to internally process and continually question. That could lead to never finishing a project and in turn losing momentum. Plus finding the funds to back outlandish endeavors can gnaw on the conscience too.

So how would i define myself? Now when people ask, i reply Artist & Craftsman. Still ambiguous, I know, but I am able to give a solid answer while leaving it open to delve deeper and deeper if the person is still curious. Some mornings I don’t even know which hat I’ll be wearing for the day; I could be fabricating light fixtures or art directing a company’s re-branding. But it will always require creative problem solving and presentation.

“Is it art or is it design?” It’s similar to asking, “Is that a painting, drawing or illustration?” If you look at an illustrator’s portfolio site, they will categorize their work into these categories. What an artist would label as a painting, the visitor may consider an illustration. But it’s the artist’s site, so that is how it is categorized. In a store Campbell’s soup is package design; in a museum it’s art. I’ve heard that art leans heavy on concept and theory, while design lives on the functional side.

I think whichever the label is dictated by the means it is presented to the viewer.


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