A noted sculptor, Jane South’s path to the present, her inspirations, and her advice, all provide the context and struggle behind her artwork. Currently the Interim Head of the Sculpture Department at RISD, South’s lecture showed her teaching experience, relating various struggles in her life with humor and self-confidence to her audience. She chose to show not only how her art changed through time, but also what made a difference and why looking back matters. It didn’t feel like an introduction to her art or a story of her life, nor did she simply present the “highlights” of her art and flip through unending slides of pictures; to me, it felt cyclical and understandable, as though she was reading selections from a journal or going through various memories. She gave me the “epiphany” moments, explaining each and always returning to the whole of her artistic work.
Growing up in England, South’s earliest point and interaction with art occurred from visits to her Grandfather in the North. A draftsman, he had many books of his trade, detailed line drawings and etchings of architectural and other build-able plans of objects. Another inspiration is an unfinished Renaissance painting, showing an angel coming out from a building. I would simply pass by it, but the seemingly random painting fascinated her. The lines showing the perspective of the room behind the painted wall, the contrast of finished and unfinished space, leading her to a major theme in her work: “constructed reality.” She doesn’t mean completely fabricated paintings or sculptures of random objects and spaces, instead, she looks at the illusion of space; the “fakery,” what is “wrong” or “false,” and somehow without functional use.
However, Jane South made her thoughts very clear—this understanding of the attraction and connection between her art and these early memories came after decades of hard work and creation (and usually pointed out to her by others, such as her mother). Her choice to step back and look at the whole of her life, sharing the moments when you feel like slapping yourself for not seeing the painfully obvious, made this event less like a lecture, and more like a fun conversation between friends.
Without visual art at her high school, South began to work in her school theatre program, building the sets and backgrounds framing the stage space. Unsurprisingly, she ended up majoring in Theater Set and Costume Design at St. Martin’s in London (college), and worked in an experimental theatre production company for a while. Yet, she still didn’t feel content and fulfilled with the work, though she enjoyed the challenge of presenting a representative, temporary space to an audience, much like the earlier painting functions. So, moving to New York, she began to re-examine what parts of art gave her the most joy. After a very unsuccessful sculpture, she saw the best part of creating came from drawing: the skeletal, simple lines, and the moment when ink seeps into the paper (a squishy, “magical transformation,” according to South).
Extracting line from everything, her art began to dematerialize architecture, wanting to add or subtract from the dimensionality of space. Frequently, her sculptures feature optical illusions made up of crosshatching lines in circular forms, appearing to move in space without physically moving. They resemble air conditioning vents and hamster wheels, random and manufactured cylindrical objects, strangely delicate despite their metallic, machine appearance. As the viewer approaches, the pieces become even more apart from reality, their almost obsessively perfect construction combined with the simple materials of paper and ink. South relies on her craft, or how carefully and cleanly she makes her art, to bring the viewer into the exhibition space, willing them to examine the odd, clustered objects of various sizes that form the child-like dream clouds of sculpture.
Most recently, she finally saw theatre connected the machines and the architectural three-dimensional series of sculptures. The result was a sculpture miming the backstage of a theatre, an unseen, hidden space of potential where something should happen or should form before an audience. Hanging above the viewer, it resembles all of the speakers, wires, lights, and other electrical parts of a production, objects obvious and necessary for a modern performance, but still hidden and ignored. The “reality” of the theatre is the stage, a space with unlimited possibilities, but most successful when it appears to be everyday and natural, not manufactured. Jane South’s sculpture shows exactly what a space should not, the framework and foundation making up a space. It calls the viewer to explore the forbidden, self-generating reality and complete fiction, as each part of the experience is made from paper, mimicking the shape but not the physical use of the assumed objects.
In this way, Jan South creates environments and conditions around a viewer, without performance, an equal relationship between the people and her art. The viewer does not need to perform anything in the space, yet the space seems to demand it from their presence. Finally, her last few works deal with the after-effects of a production, taking down the reality from the space of a stage. Instead of neatly held above the viewer, the collection of objects seem to be splayed out on a stage without order or method, showing another obvious, yet unconscious, part of the theatre to a member of the audience. The space ceases to exist when the audience leaves, the before and after completely invisible to the average viewer.
From this amazing introduction to Jane South’s work, I felt more like a freshman, to whom a senior tries to explain how she created a piece of work, and why it is important. She did not treat me (the audience) with any presumption of her work’s fame, or how influential it might be, she simply gave me insight into a fellow artist’s creative process. Most humanizing was her comment on her latest piece, saying, “So that’s where I am,” proving her future shares the same uncertainty as my own. Though I have not seen any of her work personally, the photographs and explanation of her work gave me context, taking me beyond the physical experience of the piece.
Jane South’s idea of presenting the unseen connects with many of the ideas in Victorian literature, trying to give a voice or attention to the ignored people, places, and events in the world (like the poor, or the starving people in the Irish Potato Famine). While this might seem extreme, South’s art is extreme—she intentionally makes individual pieces of art without meaning, and placing them collectively to create feeling in the viewer. Charles Dickens’ Bleak House functions in the same way: a collection of random events when discussed alone, yet representing a greater mystery in modern Victorian life to the reader.