Interviews

A New Yorker in Detroit

by Colin Darke on November 9, 2011

A view of Hoffman's paper diagrams based on her measurements of the building she will recreate in paper (all image taken by the artist, Judith Hoffman)

DETROIT — Wouldn’t it be refreshing if an outside artist came to Detroit and focused on the nuanced, complex nature of Detroit? I mean, the abandoned building narrative is not really that original or thought provoking is it? By now I think the only dialogue an artist could illicit would be, “oh, poor, poor, Detroit … let’s move on to the next topic.”

Detroit should get a talented and thoughtful artist to live here as part of a residency — give her a huge studio (the size of a city block), a place to stay and a food stipend. Let her absorb the characters that make up this city, and then see if she creates an important work that isn’t just about the waning wonder of abandoned buildings.

Judith Hoffman

Enter New Yorker Judith Hoffman.

Hoffman came to Detroit through an arts residency program. She is in the middle of her ambitious sculptural project. The project is in four stages. She is currently in the beginning stage where she meticulously recreates a building out of paper. (The building is in Detroit by her studio.)

The pictures here are the stairwells, doors, windows, walls and roof of her new interpretation of this building. She will then cover the building and use the building as a backdrop to a collaborative slideshow. She asked local and international artists to send her photographs. She wants photographs of what happens in the periphery (photographs that are not art and they are not documentation, but yet the photographs are part of the actual reality that we usually choose not to highlight in this information age). The final stage is a time-lapse video of the pieces disintegration.

This work is important because it provides a new narrative to Detroit’s buildings that focuses on the artist’s hand and the artist generating art through a community effort. Her engagement is what takes the piece outside of a novel homage to Christo and Jeanne-Claude. I sat down with Judith to learn more about her process and her time in Detroit. (As an aside, we talked about our shared opinion that Detroit hands down has the best radio stations out of any city in the US.)

Speaking of New Yorkers, I met Hoffman just after I went to a new show at Detroit’s Studio Couture gallery titled Harbinger: Shifting Culture and New Art from Detroit. This show is another collaboration between New York and Detroit. New Yorker Sara Ayers selected certain rising art stars based in Detroit. The show runs through the end of this month, and then it’s headed to New York. I drafted a short review, but I wanted to try something new and let the artists in the show comment about my review before I publish it here. This is an eclectic group of artists. I had more than one question about the selection and installation. So I will run that review next week along with any comments that the curator or the artists have.

What do you think: is there a way for New Yorkers and Detroiters to collaborate more? Is there value in such collaborations? Hoffman gives her two cents below.

*    *    *

One of Hoffman's sculptural project, which involved her sewing an exact paper replica of the exterior facade of a schoolhouse in rural Nebraska.

Colin Darke: When did you start creating art? When did you decide to become an artist?

Judith Hoffman: I like to tease my mom about the worst birthday gift ever. I was eight years old and wanted nothing more than a computer for my birthday. I came home from school that day to find a big box and opened it to find dot matrix computer paper. I hoped it was a hint for something else, but my mother very earnestly told me, “Honey, I’m so sorry. We got you this paper since you’re always sketching. Now you can make a drawing the length of the halls.” Sometimes in life you have an a-ha moment. Mine came in college during my last semester before graduation when I realized that art was something I had always made and could happily imagine doing everyday for the rest of my life.

CD: How would you describe your style?

JH: That’s tricky, I’m not sure that I have enough critical distance to describe my style. I value the process of translating (by hand) the things that I imagine into real objects.

CD: What or who inspires you?

JH: As dorky as this is, reading philosophy inspires me, I have been particularly obsessed with Brian Massumi and Gaston Bachelard lately. In general, going for walks with a camera and reading the newspaper are my starting points.

CD: Does beauty play a role in your art?

A work by Judith Hoffman titled "Finished" (nd)

JH: Of course, but because of the scale of what I make, I often don’t get to assess in what way its beauty exists until it is already built.

CD: What is your process?

JH: My process is project dependent although I rarely make things through spontaneous investigation. For the piece here in Detroit, the first thing was to choose materials, then make a map/drawing, build in small sections and cross all of my fingers that it will fit together when installed.

CD: What role does environment play in your process?

JH: Environment is the central factor in my work. My surroundings and the complexities of location are heavy influences in what I build.

CD: Why paper works?

JH: I sometimes build with fabric, but paper is environmentally responsible given the scale of my sculptures. It’s complicated to work with and accessible, which I like. It’s well-suited to ephemeral installations and lightweight.

CD: Does collaboration play a role in your process?

JH: Collaboration is important to me, there are interesting questions and things that happen when two people (or more) begin to imagine together. I am hoping that many artists and image makers submit images for projection in collaboration with my sculpture for the show at Quark.

CD: How has your art career changed over the past five years?

JH: I was still in grad school five years ago and when I finished, it took me about two years to figure out how to make art full-time. I was working as a waitress and was deeply unhappy without knowing how to change things. When I realized that I had to get over my fear of rejection and showing my work publicly, things changed very quickly. I was asked to build a piece for Art in General in New York and over that year things began to take off for me. I exhibited heavily and began applying for residencies as a way to have space and time to make work and have been going between New York and artist residencies ever since.

CD: How has your residency been with Wayne State (TechTown/Quark Gallery)?

JH: Sharon Harrell, the curator at Quark Gallery, has been my central contact and she is amazing. She has a real vision for the space and possibilities and I want to thank both her and TechTown for everything.

Works by Hoffman. Top, each "Tree" is over 5' in diameter, representing the Baobab, Honduran Rosewood, Louisiana Magnolia, Olive and Bodhi trees, below, soft golden levee of over 500 pillows.

CD: What is your latest project?

JH: I’m building a one-to-one exact paper replica of the Quark Gallery building at the corner of Amsterdam and Woodward and will be showing the piece in four stages. First, laid out flat, second, put up as a slipcover on the building, third, in collaboration with both local and national artists, including Cris Mendoza, Kambui Olujimi, David Prince, Jimmy McBride, Justin Cooper and others. There is an open call for artists to submit images to project onto the sculpture. The pieces’ final stage will be as a time lapse charting the course of its disintegration over a month’s time.

CD: How can other artists get involved?

JH: There is an open call for digital works that occupy the space between documentation and artwork. People should drop off CDs with digital works at 440 Burroughs, c/o Quark Gallery, Attn: Judith Hoffman by Nov. 16th at noon.

Late submissions cannot be included. Digital image submissions must be jpeg’s labeled as follows Lastname_Firstname_001.jpg. A maximum of 18 images at 300 dpi, no larger than 1200 x 1200 pixels. Video submissions must be the file, (no DVDs) with a .mov extension, formatted for QuickTime.

CD: Has Detroit surprised you?

JH: I absolutely love it here, Detroit is beautiful and vibrant and complicated, and I will be sad to leave.

CD: What is your studio space like?

JH: My space here in Detroit is phenomenal. It is easily the coolest studio I have ever had. I am in the first floor of an old parking lot that has been kept clean and well attended. It is the size of a city block and has a ton of character.

CD: You recently gave a lecture at the city’s College for Creative Studies (CCS), how did that go?

JH: Absolutely wonderfully. I felt so welcomed by both the students and faculty at CCS. They have unbelievable resources, both in terms of people and facilities; I only wish I had more time to see what the students are up to.

CD: You primarily work out of New York, what can Detroit learn from New York and vice versa?

JH: New York has the audience for art but it is a struggle to survive there, nonetheless find adequate time for the studio. From the outside, Detroit is an inverse reflection: here you have space and resources, but not necessarily a financially supportive audience. It’d be amazing to see a partnership between the two cities, where New Yorkers could come and work in Detroit for a few months and Detroit artists could come to experience the community/dialogue aspect of New York.

CD: Do you have any mentors?

JH: I’m looking to fill the position of mentor. Interested applicants should send me an email ASAP.

CD: How do you define success?

JH: Success for me means making objects that both I and others believe that their existence brings value to the world.

CD: How can Detroit attract artists like you?

JH: Keep up the good work and support local organizations that believe in the arts.

 

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