In the Studio with Jordan Holms

Jordan Holms is a Canadian mixed media artist who primarily works in painting and textile. Her work investigates how space can be perceived as public and private and explores constructed signs within urban architecture and domestic spaces. This month, Jordan tells us how she came to study art, her major influences, and tells us more about her latest works.

When did you first begin to see yourself as an artist? 

I’ve never really considered myself anything else. When I was young, maybe 4 or 5, I would make abstract glitter paintings and sell them to my family members for a toonie (a two-dollar Canadian coin). I would even write the price on the front of the work, so there was no confusion as to what was at stake. The point is that I’ve just always made things and learned early on that you can get rewarded for that; monetarily or otherwise, recognition, accolades, the forms of validation we all want. So why would I want to do anything else? There are still days where I don’t know if I want to do this, but I do know that I don’t want to do anything else.

Where are you from and what was your upbringing like? How has this impacted your work?

I was raised in a suburb outside of Vancouver, Canada. My family has always been very supportive of my practice, so I’m incredibly grateful for their support. I wouldn’t be able to do what I do without their support. I spent a lot of my childhood travelling and living in big cities so that has certainly had a lasting impact on my work, as it does grapple with our fraught relationship to the built environment.

Paint us a picture of your artistic journey. What inspired you to first pursue, and then continue to practice, artistic work? Was there a pivotal moment when you felt you were on the right track? 

In elementary school, they hosted a drawing competition for which students submitted drawings of faculty members and the “best” submissions were hung in the main hallway of the school. My drawing of the principal was selected. He was so pleased with it, maybe that’s when I decided. I don’t think I’ve felt on the right track since, but I keep forging onward. 

What’s the message of your work? Are there themes/narratives/purpose? Where do they come from? How would you describe your aesthetic? 

I’m interested in how the built environment is materialised, how it’s organized, and how it’s made to mean; how spaces produce meaning. I think a lot about the coded distinctions between space and place, and how to unsettle the presumed divisions between public and private space. I consider my work as a way to arrive at more nuanced definitions of “space.” I also see it as a means of troubling the varied spatial or geographic hierarchies that are familiar to us by collapsing seemingly incongruent economies of space in on one another. My intention is to emphasize the formal properties of a given space or amalgamated spaces and then translate those compositional elements into paintings or works in other mediums. Overall, I’m more concerned with the intimation or suggestion of space, rather than direct quotation. So, my work really hinges on translation as a formal strategy.

I try to consider everything bound up in what we define as inhabited space; objects that are coded in ways that produce space – furniture, the decorative molding on houses, cement barricades, wire fences, wallpaper, traffic signs, upholstery, pylons, venetian blinds. I look to the things we find in our homes and out in the built environment that signal something about how that space it organized and materialized. I then translate the associative properties of these materials – their colors, forms, and textures – into abstract compositions. I incorporate references to craft and textiles into my paintings as well. Some works feature textile-inspired patterns as signifiers of domestic space, while still using abstraction more broadly to fold the home and the city – these seemingly discrete private and public economies of space – in on one another.

Who/what are your greatest influences?

Right now, I’m really into Laurel Sparks, Becky Suss, Josh Faught, Linda Geary, Rebekah Goldstein, Jennifer Shada, Josephine Halvorson, Sarah Cain, and Minku Kim. I also look at a lot of American quilting and other textile practices, as well as contemporary textile artists, and of course, artists like Agnes Martin, Henri Matisse, and Richard Deibenkorn are major influences in my practice. Most importantly though, I think a lot of my contemporaries, the artists I went to school with, and those I’ve met elsewhere, are equally important influences. Not only because their work inspires me and challenges me, but because we have reciprocal relationships and support each other in direct ways. 

Past Life, 2019, Linda Geary

An unexpected source of inspiration?

Most of more sources of inspiration are unexpected, or happenstance at least. I tend to take note of the idiosyncratic ways in which a space signals its history. For instance, I like documenting walls that have clearly been graffitied on and then someone has come along and tried to cover it up with a shade of paint that is almost, but not quite exactly, the same as the original color. I frequent antique stores and look at all of the clashing textures and patterns. I also spend time walking around the city taking pictures of the bizarre color combinations of the row houses, or maybe the fluorescent spray-painted marks on sidewalks where the concrete has been compromised.

In recent years, there has been a wave of new or renovated San Francisco homes being painted gray in the Mission district and beyond. I suppose from a housing developer’s perspective gray is a neutral, palatable color for potential buyers. However, it is also quite a disturbing surrender to aesthetic homogeneity that codes the color gray as more “tasteful” than the unconventional and eccentric color schemes of the surrounding houses. This phenomenon, which creates an aesthetic hierarchy that exacerbates class divisions in San Francisco, has recently been examined by the artist and professor Sergio De La Torre. That said, I consider all of the ostentatiously painted houses still standing in San Francisco as forms of spatialized resistance, dissent, and refusal, and I try to emulate and preserve those convictions in my paintings. 

Are your works planned? What do you want people to take from your work when they view it? Do you have the audience consciously in mind when you are creating?

I have long collected imagery relating to domestic spaces and urban architecture, some I mine from the Internet, but I also document the things that I encounter in my day to day movements. I used to make collages from the images I took myself or sourced from the Internet and then make paintings based on those collages, but after a while I have built up such a large lexicon of imagery in my head that now I often draw on this memory bank and compose paintings that way. Most of my works now are not pre-planned, I will just let the images percolate in my head until they are ready to come together.

I wouldn’t say that I make work with the audience consciously in mind, unless it’s a commission. In the studio I have no obligation to my audience, but I understand that once the work is out there, circulating in the world, I have given up a certain degree of control over its meanings or how its interpreted, and I’m alright with that. All I hope is that maybe the work makes you think about your material, bodily relationship to the built environment, and the ways in which you navigate those spaces. 

What events in your life have mobilised change in your practise/aesthetic? How has your art evolved? Do you experiment? Do you see any parameters to your work? 

Relocating to San Francisco concretized and legitimized a lot of my formal interests in color. I clearly have a penchant for bright and fluorescent colors, as well as texture and pattern. The Bay Area is one of the few highly developed regions in the United States where you can un-ironically paint your house eggplant purple with canary yellow trim, or mint green with Pepto-Bismol pink and not have the rest of the neighborhood melt down about it. Where I grew up, those kinds of palettes were very rare, but in San Francisco I have endless source material. In that sense, the color choices become a way to undermine the civic or social authorities that dictate how a neighborhood, or an entire city “should look.”

I have been experimenting with incorporating textiles and other fiber-based practices into my work for many years. My mother and both of my grandmothers did a lot of quilting, knitting, crocheting, needle-point, embroidery and other forms of textile work while I was growing up, and my sister works in the fashion industry. So, I have always been and still am saturated in fiber practices. I recently taught myself how to do carpet tufting. This feels like a natural progression for my work because rugs and carpets have a very significant material relationship to space, especially domestic space.

I am also interested in material accretion, this is evident in some earlier fiber sculptures I did from several years back. I do a lot of layering in my paintings and the carpet tufts have become a more direct way to communicate texture, as well as the aggregation of materials in space. The idea with the tufts is to emphasize the labor, ritual, and repetition bound up textile work and its association to the domestic, while also foregrounding how domestic work is devalued precisely because it is often so repetitive and ubiquitous. I also enjoy the reciprocity between the tufts and the paintings. I often borrow compositional elements or colors from one medium to translate to the other, and this has proven to be very generative for the development of my work in both mediums.

What are your ideal conditions or catalyst for creating a “good” piece of work?

I’m not sure that I know what a good piece looks like or how it behaves, but what I do know is that a work is done when the constituent parts can no longer be moved around. That’s what I consider resolved, if not good.

In terms of ideal working conditions, I like to treat a studio day like a typical day job, because I’m a ‘middle of the day’ painter – I don’t work well early in the morning or late at night. I recently spent a month in residency at the Vermont Studio Centre and I would say that that was my ideal studio schedule. Arrive around 9 – 10 am, settle in, and spend a few minutes cleaning up from yesterday’s session. Then I’ll usually start with a small format watercolor to warm up and if I feel like my hands and brain haven’t quite caught up with each other yet, I’ll spend some time working on one of my carpet tufts (which is another medium I have recently started working in.) Sometimes this more mechanical process allows me to ease into the session rather than having to make critical decisions about paintings right out of the gate.

I’ve always said that I’m a sprinter when it comes to painting, not a marathoner. I’ll paint or do whatever I’m working on in short bursts throughout the day or across multiple days or weeks. I don’t like to work on one thing for a sustained period of time, so throughout the day I will continue a rotation of painting, tufting, and watercoloring. 

It’s taken me a long time to learn that it’s important to consider things outside of actual art production as part of the process. In the past, I’ve been really tough on myself (especially while I was in school) for not working longer hours in the studio, but I’ve come to realize that a large part of what I do requires me to just stew on images and forms and textures and colors for a while until I can compose them into something that I want to make. Sometimes that takes weeks or months! I have come to value this kind of non-traditional research as equally productive and crucial as studio time. 

Tell us about the inspiration behind one of your works?

My paintings don’t exactly have individualized inspirations. Each painting is more of an amalgamation of imagery that has accrued over time, that I can then reduce down to its fundamental shapes, colors, and textures. Each painting builds on the next one. What I can tell you about is some of the formal elements in my paintings that are significant. 

A lot of my work also features fluorescent colors. I’m interested in them because they are highly instructional colors. When we encounter neons or fluorescents in built environment, they are typically dictating how bodies have to navigate through a space – they prohibited and beckon us into certain spaces, they keep us in our lane, they tell us where to enter and where to exit. They are incredibly authoritative colors, formally and politically, so I think there’s a lot of aesthetic and political richness there.  

Stripes and grids are an important part of my vernacular too. I think their duality is significant in the sense that, historically, they have operated as signifiers of both power and oppression in material culture –– think of something like the American flag versus 19th century prison uniforms, for instance. Architecturally, stripes and grids are also a means of policing how bodies are regulated in space. For instance, fences and window blinds both act as these delineations of space – we can’t pass through them physically, but we can gaze through them and visually penetrate a space we aren’t meant to enter. They designate space – they create a here and a there, an inside and an outside. And it is that “here and there” that I’m trying to collapse in on one another. 

I’m also interested in various forms of craftwork and textiles. In some paintings, I’ll incorporate textile patterns as visual signifiers for domestic space, while still using abstraction as a tool to more broadly fold the home and city – these seemingly discrete private and public economies of space – in on one another. 


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