Talk by Judy Pfaff on Her Installation ‘Roots Up’
Judy Pfaff is an American artist known primarily for her immersive and expressive installation art, who currently teaches at the Bard College of Art, New York State. In 2015, she and Johnny Messum were introduced at a gallery in New York, an occurrence that somewhat incidentally led to an invitation to create a large-scale installation in the Messums magnificent 13th century tithe barn.
Judy introduced the opening of her first solo show in the United Kingdom with an artist’s talk. One of her most insightful remarks on ‘Roots Up’ revealed that she must choose where she travels to very carefully, as her location and surroundings always appear in her work. Her art, she admits, is entirely responsive to the events which happen to herself as well as others, citing 9/11, recent devastating flooding in the United States and familial deaths as examples.
Her being so attuned to the environment is perfectly evidenced in Messums Wiltshire’s latest exhibition, a literal reflection and reconsideration of the surrounding ancient landscape. When first visiting this corner of the country, Judy was shown around Old Wardour Castle, Salisbury Cathedral and Stonehenge. She was particularly interested in the architecture of the central vault in the Cathedral’s Chapter House, an element which can be found (now abstracted in form) in the finished show. ‘Roots Up’ is an exhibit which incites wonder, awe and the desire to explore our exceptional surroundings. Her 140ft installation piece combines the psychedelia of the local summer solstices, the magic of dark winter nights and the folklore of times gone by. Judy’s two-dimensional and smaller sculptural works displayed on her specially crafted ‘photowalls’ can be viewed in The Long Gallery next door.
Her fantastical, gravity-defying show is evocative of the buildings designed by her favourite architect, the Spaniard Antoni Gaudí. Architectural flourishes of his are echoed in Judy’s colourful floral bowls, fluted medieval vaulting and overflowing trees; oozing their sparkling multicoloured sap. Judy is resolutely interested in colour, not necessarily concerned with its technical features but instead its artistic, atmospheric qualities — a Kandinsky-like appreciation perhaps. Such excess, ostentation and vivacity is reflected in her approach to two-dimensional work. She describes how creating one image will end with ‘a hundred’ being produced.
Judy’s talk prioritised her processes and highlighted the scale of preparation which goes into such a monumental work of art. She demonstrated just how many people played an intrinsic role and humanised the entire operation by naming those involved. ‘Roots Up’ was a huge undertaking, one typified by the large sycamore ‘root bowl’ framing an elevation of the installation. This tree’s previous owners had done everything they could to get rid of it: attempting to cut it down and even burning it, to no avail. ‘Please take it!’ was the reply when Judy expressed an interest in using the tree for the show. She is able to notice the magic in objects that others are desperate to part with and amazingly, through her unique artistic production, she is able to allow everyone a window into the way she experiences the world.
And her world, as the art critic Dennis Kardon observed in Art in America, ‘has never been cowed by refined minimalist sensibilities’ instead is ‘wild’, ‘prodigious’ and ‘creative’. When she first started working in New York during the 1970s, she chose to ignore the climate of conceptual art as it simply ‘was never my thing’. This, she claims, provides a reason for her rather ‘funny’ or ‘interesting’ reputation. As she gained artistic prominence, she describes being including in a West Kunst exhibition and furiously discovering that the historical section included no women, an unfortunate phenomenon not unlike the treatment of contemporary female artists. The passionate and explosive character of Judy’s stories seem almost at odds listening to her measured slide-show presentation. Her commentary on her work and life was brief and light, allowing the photos and artwork to speak for themselves. Judy manages to be humble without becoming falsely modest and wryly quoted a previous agent’s opinion on her installations: ‘If I could sell this s*** then I would be a great dealer’.