Art & Design

Studio Visit: Discussing Abortions, Pharmaceuticals and Microgreens With Badass Artist Jo Shane

Art & Design

Studio Visit: Discussing Abortions, Pharmaceuticals and Microgreens With Badass Artist Jo Shane

Jo Shane, "The Future Is Now"
Jo Shane, "No. 5"
Jo Shane, "Escape Mechanism"
Jo Shane, "Stray Dogs Make Families," Exhibition view
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Jo Shane is a hoarder. “I don’t throw shit out, it’s really bad,” the artist told me over lunch at her midtown live/work loft. As a result, most of her work is built of autobiographical ephemera; a piece made out of 20 years worth of pharmaceutical bottles (which were once filled with everything from antidepressants to Adderall), another featuring a used pregnancy test (it was positive). But despite its intimate nature, Shane’s work is never self-indulgent. From the time she began producing work in direct response to New York’s AIDS crisis, Shane’s practice has been a reflection of the times.

The impulse to use her own biography to speak to the world around her is what makes Shane’s current body of work, on view by appointment at her aforementioned midtown loft (go see it and get to know her – you won’t be disappointed. Just slide into her DMs) so compelling. Dubbed Stray Dogs Make Families, the show features work that’s on its surface very “millennial” made by an artist who isn’t one (though she won’t disclose her age. “It’s an ageist system,” she says, and unfortunately she’s absolutely right). The result is all the delicious, glossy aesthetics (best exemplified by a scrolling screen featuring thumbnails of Shane’s entire canon of work to the tune of an instrumental version of “Mask Off”) coupled with an endearing self-awareness and a dash of satire. It’s delightful.

I chatted with Shane about her practice as we nibbled on flatbread topped with the microgreens grown in the show. It’s worth noting that they were delicious.

I want to get into your history a little. How did you end up in New York?

I’ve been hanging out in New York since I was 14. I didn’t grow up here, but I had older friends who lived here. I saw Soho in its earliest days, basically. Max’s Kansas City still existed. The Palladium was still a really cool venue. It was just a crazy time. The art world was tiny, you kind of knew everybody. When I came in ‘75, I was in the Whitney program, so you just knew everybody, like, immediately. Everybody went to one art bar.

Did you ever have a feeling of being starstruck by anyone back then?

Yeah, when I was 15, 16, I was kind of starstruck in general. This woman Edit DeAk, who recently died, who was a pretty brilliant person, had a magazine called Art-Rite. It was this very low-end, black and white zine. If you were in Art-Rite, I thought you were a star. Of course I was obsessed with Warhol and his superstars. When I would see them at Max’s, it was pretty striking. But I mean, just knowing people who were making work and succeeding as artists was kind of amazing to me.

Are you always working out of this space? 

Yeah, but I also work when I travel. There’s a whole other body of work… I guess you can’t avoid it. It’s the Gemini symbol – two different artists. I’m not sure where it overlaps. I do work on board on paper. I take ocean water and mix it with bleach and make large collage pieces. They can be folded up for transporting. I usually use detritus that I find and kind of manipulate the surface. I do that when I travel because I really want to be able to keep on working. I’m not this person in the studio everyday, disciplined.

Ok, so tell me about these microgreens we’re eating.

Well, all of these pieces constitute a meditation on the current dystopian moment we find ourselves in. So the Greens initially were the one utopian, kind of “Okay, this could be a solution” moment. I don’t know how much you know about microgreens, but they’re 40x more nutritionally dense than full-grown greens. They’re also sustainable – the crop can come up within a matter of weeks and it doesn’t take a lot of resources from the environment to keep them going. They’re kind of like the food of the future, in a way. A superfood, as it were. But, at the same time, there’s a problematic aspect in that wellness is kind of a luxury at this point in time.

…And microgreens are so emblematic of a certain kind of fake-healthy, wealthy Los Angeles sort of person.

It’s really double-edged. There’s also a real do-it-yourself aspect. Yeah, the consumers get that cliché, but they have so much positive potential, and that’s the part that really attracted me. Initially combining it with Himalayan pink salt was almost a formal issue of what looked good, and also this whole thing about keeping the medium pure. Both of them are food sources, but again, pink Himalayan salt is emblematic of wellness. None of that occurred to me initially. As I put the piece together, I thought more about it, which I think is part of my work in general – it’s all about discussion, it’s all about examining a phenomena. It’s not strident, hit you over the head, it’s more reflective. I really haven’t made politically-oriented artwork since the AIDs crisis and I think that’s a critique that you could leave yourself open to today – is it strident enough? Is it politicizing enough? What’s the action on this? But then, why make art? Why not just make a protest.

I find also a lot of the political underpinnings are tacked on at the end, but it’s not always super genuine. If you’re going to make political art, make political art, but not every art piece needs to be political.

No. But honestly, I think I felt like I had no choice. Not in an external way, but in an internalized way. Like how can you make work that doesn’t reflect all of these concerns – it’s the elephant in the living room, so what are you going to do? But in my work it’s always imbued with some sort of personal aspect. Like, this is a document from the early 90s from my fifth abortion – that’s why it’s called “No. 5.” I made this piece in the 90s and exhumed it with all of this stuff that’s going on now.

Five abortions? That’s crazy. Can I ask why?

Yeah, because I just didn’t feel ready to have kids.

But why weren’t you protecting yourself more carefully?

That’s a great question. I think that I didn’t want to take the pill. I used a diaphragm, which was kind of… iffy.

Rolling the dice.

Yeah, rolling the dice. It was before safe sex was part of the conversation. Diaphragms were considered legit if you didn’t want to be taking chemicals and changing your hormones up and I just wasn’t comfortable with that. I mean, yeah, there were IUDs. People would get inflammatory disease from them. It was kind of like the Dark Ages.

I love how the note says “No alcoholic beverages today!” The exclamation points make it kind of troubling. A doctor would never put an exclamation point on a document today.

I mean, this looks straight up from the 1950s. I think I went to Planned Parenthood for most of them, but for this I ended up with an MD – I don’t remember why.

And that pregnancy test is the weirdest looking thing I’ve ever seen.

It kind of looks like art people are making today, with the little drops. [Points to where the positive sign would go] That’s supposed to be blue, but obviously it dissolved. Pink is ok, blue is pregnant.

At what point did the piece become an idea? When you were having the abortion or years later? Because I would never keep my positive pregnancy test.

Well, I did a piece that was 20 years worth of pharmaceutical bottles – everything I’ve consumed over 20 years. So, it’s this combination of hoarding, art hoarding, life hoarding, and then being like “I’m going to do this piece.” I just have this moment of pulling everything together.

So then it’s counter-apotheosis putting it on top of this fabric that looks like a child’s bed, but it’s like nurse scrub fabric – it’s all cheery. It’s all about the facade of reproductive rights right now. But I was wondering this about Plan B: has Plan B supplanted the abortion?

I mean, it’s nice to have that option, definitely. 

See, that’s what I’m saying? You’re asking me that question [about having five abortions] but you have a different experience because of today’s technology.

Okay moving on. What can you tell me about this piece with the ladders?

I’ve been obsessed with these ladders forever.

Where did you get them?

You can just get them at Home Depot. They’re personal fire escapes for your house.

Like if you have a fire, you just attach them to your window yourself?

That’s the thing! Do you sleep with it next to your bed? So there’s this whole circle of illusion, where it’s like, this illusion of safety. Because if you wake up and there’s a raging fire, and you can’t get to the ladder. Do you put it in front of every window?

What made you put this show together.

I haven’t put together a full body of work in a long time. Normally I do one big piece, and then some small stuff. But the idea of having to show a bunch of work together really pushes me to be cohesive on some level. Again, a lot of pieces are unfulfilled things in the back of my mind and then I have that “aha! moment.” I’m so ADD, so external factors are really helpful. My work used to be much more concise and planned out all the time, but I really enjoy making the work that’s just off the cuff. Instinctive… whatever.