An Interview with Artist Joseph Shaeffer
Joseph Shaeffer (@josephshaeffer) is a conceptual t(h)inkerer who runs a trans-disciplinary studio practice and a virtual repository for the ongoing, contiguous dialogue between the disciplines of contemporary art, design and the sciences.
Interviewer Todd Berger (@todd) is CEO and co-founder of Ello, The Creators Network. He has nearly two decades experience in contemporary graphic design and brand strategy, and maintains a conceptual art practice. His award winning design studio, Berger & Föhr, is internationally recognized, and its work has been widely published and exhibited around the world.
Todd: If memory serves me, we met about 17 years ago. I was in the midst of figuring out how to make my first design business work and you were sorting out how to make your art and get your studio practice off the ground. Does that sound about right?
Joseph: Yep, that’s when we started seeing each other around Boulder. I would always wonder who that guy with the big hair was skating past my studio late at night! I had actually been making work for a couple of years prior to that but it was around 2000 that I started to have shows in Denver. It was in 2002 that we got to know each other better when you helped me on my submission for the World Trade Center Site Memorial.
Todd: Yeah man, that was a really great project to collaborate on. I’ve always felt honored and grateful that you pulled me in on that one. How did you find your way to making art?
Joseph: I’ve always been a relatively creative person but I came into art somewhat late in life. I was studying mechanical engineering and was having difficulty processing some of the spatial problems that are inherent in that field. I’ve always struggled with dyslexia and through the years I’ve learned to develop a certain set of work-arounds so that I can process problems in a way that only my brain will understand. So my work-around for these spatial problems was to build actual three-dimensional objects, just simple shapes really, that I could physically hold in my hands and view from any angle. Part of my dyslexic brain has a really difficult time understanding three-dimensional objects when presented in a two dimensional media. It’s hard to explain, an example would be that when I look at a three-dimensional CAD drawing a ton of information is lost along the way and the individual objects become a dense jumble of indiscernible lines.
Todd: So would you say that these early objects, while helping with your spatial problem solving, led you to focus on making sculpture?
Joseph: It was certainly a point of transition for me. School was starting to become hard to keep up with because I was also working full time. I have never been one to dabble in things, so I went headlong into making art and school eventually fell to the side. Around this time I also discovered the work of the Russian constructivists and that stuff really resonated with me. I got heavily into studying the history of those artists, Naum Gabo in particular, and I became a student of that movement for a long while.
Todd: One can most definitely see the influence of the constructivist movement in your early work. Can you talk a bit about that early work and how it transitioned into the type of work you have been interested in making more recently, over the past few years?
Joseph: Sure. I started out making constructions that relied on magnetism to create physical tension within the composition and form. This was the Magnetic Sustension work. I kind of took that as far as I wanted to and ditched the magnetic aspect of the work and started to rely on more traditional means of tensioning an object (steel cable and fasteners) while infusing the object with a narrative referencing physical tension as part of the human condition. This body of work was called …Manifest As Tension.
Steel beam from World Trade Center, acrylic box containing 3016 steel spheres, 500:1 scale towers, magnetism
TNS 550-05 (A Dark Tower...From The Confines Of The Mind)
Aluminum, stainless steel, acrylic
After that came the Void Studies. I got very into the psychological aspect of things in my life and wanted to explore what the existence of the Void might mean to me as an artist. The work from this series initially consisted of satellite images that I would overlay on top of hundreds of layers of hand cut paper. In the process of spending hour upon hour cutting these voids into the paper it occurred to me that I was filling some unknown void in my personal life by creating an actual, physical void.
I was starting to recognize that these layers of cuts that were forming voids in the stacked paper might be similar to the process of how voids within the human psyche might be created. That is, slowly, over time, with each traumatic event a person is confronted with during a lifetime adding another layer to the psychological void. This was a very meditative and calming process for me and I implemented a sort of mantra while doing this cutting: Void Create, Void Fill. But, alas, there is only so much paper a person can cut.
Since I was still interested in the narrative around this work I transitioned into paintings and a couple of large sculptures until it finally came together as a complete body of work. And then it was time to move on. I still have a box with all of the Exacto blades that I used in that process, there must be a couple of hundred of dulled out blades in there.
Void Sketch 014
Hand cut paper
Acrylic on panel
Around 2010 I started a new body of work titled The Epoch of Encroachment. This work was an exploration into what might happen in some distant future when the natural world (life other than Humans) figured out a way to implement our technology to protect itself from our ongoing trespasses. This was the first time I felt like the work that I was making belonged to me and was standing on it’s own without some sort of historical influence. This exploration culminated in a large installation for the first Biennial of the Americas in Denver. Being involved with that was a really positive experience for me but it didn’t end up giving me the momentum I thought it would and I haven’t really shown my work in Denver since. Which leads us up to today. I’ve been busy for the past six years working towards something and not knowing what it was supposed to be. My practice has changed quite a bit over that time and I have a ton of work that I haven’t shown.
Encroachment Study (Variant 010)
Scientific glass, ecosystem (minerals, glass beads, Bromeliads), loc-line, Dolichovespula Maculata (bald faced hornet) nests, Tillandsia Bulbosa, delrin, surgical tubing
Encroachment Study (Variant 010)
Todd: Yeah, let’s talk about that. I’m fortunate in that I have the opportunity to visit with you on a pretty regular basis. Subsequently, I see most of your work as it’s being created. Which I fucking love btw. I consider you one of the more prolific artists in my life, as far as producing new work goes. Particularly, over the past few years. But you haven’t shown much of it. Can you explain why and what’s really driving your current thinking?
Joseph: Well, a couple of things really. First off, the work requires a somewhat slow but very deliberate approach so there is a lot of time spent iterating and tweaking things before actually producing the final components for a new body of work. After the iterating and tweaking is finalized, things start to happen very quickly in regards to the different elements of a project being manifested into the real world as tangible objects. The second reason for my lack of showing new work is that I’ve spent the past five years trying to find quality gallery representation that I’m comfortable with in cities like New York, Los Angeles and Berlin. But, that’s not going as planned so I’ve decided to work towards taking matters into my own hands. I’d like to discuss that more later…
Todd: While I’m quite familiar with your work, I often encounter what feels like disparate, non-related ideas and aesthetic principles from one body to the next. It sometimes feels like the work of different artists. Is that fair to say? I could see you having a large, comprehensive museum show and people thinking it’s a highly curated group show, rather than the work of a single artist. Do you think this an accurate assessment, or am I being overly critical?
Joseph: I do, and I appreciate your ability to recognize that aspect of my practice as a whole. It’s intentional, and if you look closely you start to see it. There are usually one or two pieces from one body of work to the next that act as transitional vehicles or bridges. Sometimes it’s evident in the form of a shared conceptual or material process, while other times it might be something as simple as a loosely related aesthetic value.
Todd: That seems like one of the core tenets of your practice. Are there other core principles or philosophies that you employ?
Joseph: Yes, a couple of other ones. I try not to use an idea or a material without first having as much of a scientific understanding of it as I possibly can. I do my best to honor the ideas and materials that I put into the world by studying them at length before combining them and making them into something of their own. For many years I rarely used any color in my work because I didn’t understand it at a fundamental level.
I’m deeply submerged in the study of the mechanical properties of light as well as the study of color as wavelength through my job managing a physics lab. The daily exposure to those concepts has provided me the insight I needed to be comfortable using them as both a conceptual framework and as an aesthetic point of reference in my new work.
Another tenet of my practice is the perpetual exercise of curiosity. It seems like the modern society that we live in dictates that individuals become highly specialized in one certain thing or another in order to have any success or keep up in the world. I have a very hard time with this paradigm and resist it constantly.
I first noticed this while growing up in South Dakota. My Father was, and still is a Medical Doctor. He was a general practitioner, country Doctor. He had a thriving practice from the 1960’s through the 1980’s. He was the kind of Doc that still made house calls, often to pretty remote farms around the town we lived in. He actually carried his leather Doctor bag with him and wore his stethoscope around his neck while he was working. By the early 1990’s more and more Doctors were being required to specialize in one specific field or another in order to have a successful practice. This was due to the insurance industry requiring people to see a specialist for their particular ailment. He was not one of those Doctors and began loosing patients because of this new system.
His once thriving practice couldn’t be sustained under this model so his only choice was to work for someone other than himself. This led him to work for the South Dakota State Penitentiary as the head physician. As you can imagine, this was not an easy job and I think it took a lot out of him. It was hard for me to witness all of this during that time, but in the end it made him a much more tolerant and caring person so it worked out for the best. He was relieved of his duties last year at 85 years of age and it was one of the saddest days of his life.
My point in telling this story is that I’ve learned to allow my curiosity to go where it needs to in order to let me be a more well-rounded person. If something piques my interest I try to dig in and learn as much about that thing as I can. I feel that well rounded individuals, individuals with a little bit of knowledge about many things are valuable members of society because a diverse set of knowledge allows you to understand people and their situations better which, in turn, helps create the ability to have empathy towards others.
Don’t get me wrong, there is a great need for the specialists in the world and without them there wouldn’t be as much progress. I just feel like not everybody has to be pressured into being this kind of person. Some of my favorite artists built their entire careers and reputations on the study of one specific system or aesthetic. Where would we be without artists like Sol Lewitt, Donald Judd or Fred Sandback? It was their continuous iteration of a mostly singular idea in their individual practice that drove them to make the work they did and contemporary art is in a better place today because of it.
Todd: You mentioned your work managing a physics lab. How do you balance your full time day job and your art practice?
Joseph: I don’t have a tremendous amount of life responsibilities outside of work and pursuing success in my art practice. I’m the kind of person that feels the need to maintain a full time job because it provides me a good enough income that I can be free from the financial anxiety of being left to force my art to provide for me. It should be the other way around, I should take care of the art.
I see a lot of creatives/artists that are self-employed and I’m constantly in awe of how they manage. Often times I see these types of people having to hustle to make things work. I understand the importance of getting your work out there in front of as many people as possible but I feel that sometimes artists take whatever opportunities come their way because they have to maintain their life responsibilities. Because of this, the work is sometimes placed in situations that don’t serve it well. I understand why artists have to make these decisions and it doesn’t seem to bother most of them, I just can’t operate like that due to a high level of built in anxiety around responsibilities and the fear of having to push my work onto people. You recently gave a talk about being a professional creative…I probably should have gone to that, I likely would have learned a thing or two!
At this point, my work life and my practice are very much enmeshed. My job allows me to be creative in the work place by offering me the opportunity to come up with processes and spatial configurations to make things work better and in turn these aspects can be carried over into my art practice. I also have access to some really useful machines and interesting materials that I can implement into my own work. It’s a good situation for me and it took a long time to find the work/passion balance in life but I think I’m almost there.
Todd: You talked about the opportunity for the processes you develop at work to carry over into your art practice. I know that the work you do at your day job greatly informs your artwork. Can you elaborate further?
Joseph: Two people recently asked me this same question and I answered them with an analogy that I came up with. Imagine a weaver with a loom:
The seeking out and identification of seemingly disparate threads
Materials or ideas of interest are approached from many angles and through an investigative process are deconstructed into constituent parts to determine viability
Locating a commonality between those recently deconstructed threads based on their constituent parts and then extracting what will best serve the composition as a whole
Organizing those threads into groups based on shared or complimentary properties/qualities
Tying knots to join those newly formed groups in order to give them stability and reinforce their connection to each other
The Loom Room
Weaving a tapestry out of the newly knotted, previously unrelated threads to form a new composition with a life and identity of its own
Todd: I dig that analogy. It helps me better understand how your brain works. I’ve seen some of your most recent works and they seem to be a product of processing or generative code or perhaps some type of digital machination. Is that right?
Joseph: Ha. No, those images and videos that you’ve seen are achieved through a much more analog process than anything computational or digital. I’ll do my best to explain how they are made.
The first step is to actually make the physical object; in this case, a series of four-inch liquid crystal cells for a government contract.These cells, in their essence, are a four-inch pixel, which when considered further is the most basic constituent of any type of digital display media, although that was not their intended function. I believe they were being used as some sort of light switching mechanism for a Navy project.
In the process of qualifying these components by running them through a series of tests to check if they met stringent performance specifications, I noticed that some of them were not performing as intended and I had to fail them. Through this investigation, I saw potentially interesting compositional and conceptual qualities in the failed components. So instead of casting them aside, I began to develop a system to photograph and film them.
The tricky thing with these LC components is that the activity happening between the two layers of glass cannot be seen with the naked eye. It basically looks like a normal four inch square piece of glass. However, if viewed through crossed polarized light, the internal activity can be seen. So I configured a system that would allow a camera to see what the naked eye couldn’t. This resulted in a columnated system of polarizers and circular polarizers, which was more like a sculpture than anything else.
The camera then used that system to capture the activity that was happening in the cell. So, I had my analog viewing system figured out and the only thing left to do was install a driver to provide some voltage to the components, configure everything on top of a light box and then start capturing images. This step was more complicated than initially planned but I got through it and I’m very happy with the resulting images.
It should be mentioned that the images were not digitally manipulated in Photoshop (other than cropping and sizing). The printed images and videos are accurate representations of what the camera was seeing. To take this concept a little further I incorporated these images into some three- dimensional work as well. The images are applied to the surface of different sculptural forms, in this case half-dodecahedrons made from aluminum. Essentially I am deconstructing a three-dimensional object (the liquid crystal cell) by flattening it into a two-dimensional image by photographing it and then reconstructing it into separate three- dimensional form.
Construction — Deconstruction – Reconstruction. I enjoy the thought behind processes like that.
LC Componenticular 03 (Liquid Crystal Composition)
LightJet print on FujiFlex paper, face mounted to OP3 acrylic with Poplar box frame
Dodec Componenticular 01 (1/2 Dodec Achromat Composition, 1:3 Study)
Digital print mounted on powder coated aluminum with automotive clear coat123° achromats, laser cut polarizing film, photographed on light box under cross polarized light
Todd: I think the resulting images and videos are very cool, they’re pretty trippy too. It sounds like you’ve really got a lot going on. Can you talk briefly about what’s next?
Joseph: I mentioned earlier that I was starting to take some steps towards doing things on my own due to the frustration of not being able to find good representation, so I decided to take over a new space in Denver and beginning this month I’m going to have five consecutive shows of my work over the next year.
Todd: Cool. Where in Denver is the new space? It’s a space you’ve shown at before, right? So, you’re pretty familiar with it?
Joseph: Yes I am. The space was a pretty prominent contemporary gallery through the 80’s and 90’s. It’s owned by Robert and Peggy Mangold, they were actually the driving force behind the Museum of Contemporary Art Denver. They kind of initiated the whole process of getting that museum up and running.
Robert is a well known artist and he still maintains his studio in the building. There is an outdoor space for large sculptures and the space I’ll be using is the gallery in the front of the building. It’s kind of a tiny but I’m used to planning shows around its’ dimensions so it always works out really well spatially. In the twenty years I’ve known the Mangolds they have been really supportive of me. I’ve actually had five show with them over that time but I came into their programming kind of late in their careers and the gallery space has mostly been empty for the past several years. They are in their mid-eighties now and they just want to take some time and enjoy life.
I’ve developed a strong relationship with their oldest daughter over the past few years and we have spent lots of time talking about what we could do with the space. So I wrote up a proposal and they thought it was a great way to revitalize things and look towards the future. Head over to @mangoldspace and give us a follow. There will be more content added there shortly.
Todd: So what does your program look like for the rest of the year? Do you have long term plans for the new space?
Joseph: My first show Photonic Anomalies, opens on Friday, November 18th. I’ll be exhibiting the video, photographic and sculptural work described a minute ago. This show runs through January 21st, 2017.
Up next will be a site-specific installation: Seeking That Which Reflects The Longest Wavelength. That will run from February 10th, 2017 through April 8th, 2017.
I think I’m most excited to see how this one ends up. It involves about 5000 beam splitter cubes that will convey color as a value of wavelength throughout the space.
The third show, Growth Specimens, will be another installation, this one composed of a couple of hundred small watercolor paintings that I have been working on. They remind me of nerve cells and they are going to be individually displayed in Riker boxes. Those are the specimen boxes that you sometimes see butterflies and other insects or flora displayed in. That show opens April 28th, 2017 and runs through July 1st, 2017.
Show number four will be Gradients and Primes. These two bodies of work will focus in on the use of prime number spirals and different gradient studies that I’ve been working on for the past couple of years. The show will consist of sculpture, painting and photography and will be up from July 21st, 2017 through September 9th, 2017.
Beam-splitter cubes, powder coated aluminum housing
Each cube possesses the color value of itself plus the value of each cube contiguous to its edges
Growth Specimen 001
Watercolor on Yupo
Prime numbers, anodized aluminum sheet, Pyrex spheres
Gradient Study 03
Laser cut and bonded illustration board, gray scale chipsmounted and framed with AR coated museum glass
Laser cut and bonded illustration board, Pantone chipsPrime number Pantone chips (101 through 719)
Lunar Study 002
Image taken from Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter, printed with Zybek Lunar Simulant material on aluminum
Todd: You’ve been on Ello since the beginning, which is super rad. What opportunities/advantages does Ello provide you over other social media/portfolio sites or place on the web?
Joseph: I’m a pretty private person by nature so it’s a bit uncomfortable putting my life on view for the world to see. The Ello manifesto and business policy of not sharing user data with other parties is an important detail for me. I also like the fact that I’m not bombarded with crap that I don’t want to see. I can choose what and how I see things on Ello. It’s also nice that there isn’t a lot of negativity, it’s a peaceful place filled with positive people wanting to share their ideas and projects. I like that.
Todd: Who are some of your favorite Ello community members?
Joseph: @andrewfaris @cgwarex <a href="/patricklaummond" class="user-mention">@patrick_laummond @dereklerner @sushitl @kapka @194angellstreet @dirkmarwig @teetonka
Todd: OK man. Let’s wrap this up.
Joseph: Fun talk, good questions. Big thanks to you and @lucian for all of your help over the years. It’s been inspiring watching the two of you make things happen.
Todd: Thank you Joe.