Janice Caswell Q&A

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Janice Caswell, “Construction Site, Lafayette Street 02 (study 2),” 2013, Acrylic on archival print, 13 x 9.5 inches


Pierogi: What is your background in making art? What brought you to this series of works?
Janice Caswell: When I finished art school I started cataloging my memories of place by drawing mental maps of places I’d lived or visited and specific experiences I’d had. The project began with sketchbook drawings and evolved into paintings, large and small mixed-media works, and eventually site-specific, dimensional wall drawings.

After working in this way for about 10 years, my focus shifted to ideas of structure, order, logic, and the impossibility of perfection. I started experimenting with collage-and-ink drawings in which small squares and rectangles were lined up and stacked in a regimented way that inevitably drifted away from the grid, creating imperfect geometric forms. After spending a few years building these forms based on a wonky grid, I began seeing and being attracted to similarly irregular shapes in the world, which led me to the work I’m making now.

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Janice Caswell, “Plastic Baskets, Bangkok (study),” 2013, Acrylic on archival print, 9.5 x 6.5 inches

In 2010 I went to Southeast Asia for the first time, and was immediately inspired. Everything was new, unexpected, fascinating. I found myself particularly drawn to the improvised, precarious manmade structures around me, things like haphazardly patched roofs, off-balance stacks of goods, and run-down market carts. I madly photographed what I could, knowing that in the moment it was impossible to see, much less absorb, everything around me. A few years later, after a second trip to Southeast Asia, I realized why I was so attracted to these things and started making the photographs the starting point for my work.

P: How do you choose the photographs to be painted: do you shoot with an aim of painting the captured image, or select from the photographs afterwards?
JC: I spend a lot of time reviewing my photographs to figure out which ones to work on. As I study them, I notice that in some images, my eyes trace the contours of forms that seem to emerge over time. I don’t necessarily know what the exact boundaries of the form are at that point, but I can feel there’s something in there I want to bring out.

Initially I reviewed dozens of photographs before finding one that contained a compelling form. These days I automatically notice structures in the world that might make good subjects. I can’t guarantee which ones are going to work, but know – more or less – what kinds of things I’m looking for.

P: Do the places and objects you’ve photographed and selected to show through the painting have a particular significance to you?
JC: Most of the photographs come from my travels and are a record, though an incomplete one, of my experiences. Even the photos I take in my daily environment, just walking around NYC, serve to document where I’ve been and what I’ve seen. The objects I find in the images are significant to me because I’m aware that I’m seeing things other people usually don’t. At least not until I mask out everything else in the image.

P: What are some of the key influences in your work, either in direct sources of inspiration or in other artwork?
JC: I’m most influenced by what I see in my surroundings, often things I find in unlikely places: construction sites, industrial facilities, machinery, scrap yards, abandoned buildings, and dumpsters, for example.

I feel a connection with art that makes reference to architecture or combines various found or used objects to create quirky structures or shapes. Some of the artists whose work I think about are Richard Tuttle, Diana Cooper, Cordy Ryman, Ruth Root and Phoebe Washburn. I also am looking at a lot of photography-based work these days: many artists are using photography in innovative ways, some transforming images using digital tools exclusively and others who incorporate various non-photographic methods and materials.

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Janice Caswell, “Red Barn Columbia County, NY (study),” 2014, Acrylic on archival print, 15 x 11 inches

P: Do you find a particular aspect of your practice most challenging? Most enjoyable?
JC: Every step in making this work is enjoyable. Wandering around looking at the world and shooting what catches my eye is a great way to start. I love how this practice of active looking allows me to see what I might not otherwise. There’s so much that is interesting and even beautiful in the everyday and in things that usually go unnoticed.

The biggest challenges arise when I’m working with very complex images. Sometimes a piece seems to have an infinite number of possible outcomes and I feel temporarily paralyzed, unable to choose a path. And with each decision I make –each section of the photo I white out – part of the image is gone, and the available options change. When these pieces are finished, I’m not always 100% sure my choices were the right ones, even when I’m very happy with the result.

P: What are you working on currently? Do you have any upcoming shows or projects?
JC: I recently spent three weeks at a residency where I worked on larger prints: 22 by 30 inches and up. Before that I had made only a few this size, focusing instead on more economical 13 by 19 inch prints. Working larger changes how I approach the piece, as well as what objects emerge in the process. I’ve been exploring a wider range of shapes and compositions in the larger work. Some of the newer forms appear more organic, which is surprising and refreshing, and gives me more ideas for where this work can go.

My work will be in two upcoming shows, one at LABspace in Hillsdale, NY and another at Matteawan Gallery in Beacon, NY. I also have several pieces in a show of selected work from the Pierogi Flat Files currently on view at the Art Hotel Gran Paradiso in Sorrento, Italy.