About the Artist
Janel Schultz is an artist living and working in Brooklyn.
Fragments of animal characteristics are combined with the human body and abstracted to weave an emotional connection to existence. A particular emphasis on limbs seeks to echo the mobility of species. Inspired by migrations, clusters reflect herds and flocks. Parts are pulled from different environments, exaggerated and merged into a collection of hybrids, with reference to the real but hovering the line of imaginary. These hybrids aim to exist in the state of becoming, a liminal transition, to tease what is known and what is imagined.
with Joe Brommel, September 2018
Okay, the first thing I wanted to talk about is the feather imagery in your work. Why feathers?
I’m really drawn to them right now. They’re so interesting visually, there's beauty in them. I’m thinking about movement a lot — how a wing will bend in different ways than a human arm. It’s a different way of maneuvering through the world. It just feels right.
You say “right now,” but have you always been drawn to them? Or have you have you been drawn mostly to physiology in general?
I think I've always been interested in them. The idea of flying, the idea of an extension of human body moving through another space. Does that make sense?
Yeah, it definitely makes sense. So your primary interest is in ways of interacting with the world that aren't necessarily through human bodies?
Yes, yes. I use the animal as a way to look at different ways of movement. There are all these different ways that different mammals move, or amphibians, or fish, or birds — it’s so diverse, and there are so many different adaptations and methods of existing.
There's a clear connection to ways of moving through the physical world in your sculpture work, but can you talk a little bit how that comes into your recent drawing work?
Yeah, a lot of the stuff I’m doing lately has a pattern that's based on a loon. Thinking about characteristic markings again, or surface imagery. When I'm doing that I'm trying to make some movement in the way the patterns move throughout or across the form. It's maybe loosely based on migration, but at the same time kind of about morphing, or adaptation, or evolution — how a characteristic could change over time.
I don’t know. That gets kind of heavy. It’s a little more playful than that.
Yeah! That's another thing I wanted to talk about. In the prep questions for this interview you mentioned that you think of the process of your work as more playful — that “a lot of adults forget how to play.”
Right. I’m more excited about playful ways of engaging with the viewer. Because I think it's important to have that element of play. When I try to write about my work, I get really serious, and I start to break things down, and it starts to lose that element of the imaginary. Or hypothetical evolutions. Or it could be from another dimension! Or something that's still related to our physical world, but that hovers on the border of the real and unreal.
I actually just finished talking to Jen Shepard, and this is echoing a lot of things that come up in her work. Have there been any interesting conversations with her this month about imagining different worlds in your artwork?
A little bit. She likes to talk about moving beyond into the black hole. But I don't want to go extreme sci-fi. I'm still interested in this earth, even if I’m thinking about adaptations that might not exist now.
I think there's a theme that goes through a lot of my work — the hybridization of forms, joining and merging, juxtaposing parts and fragments. But the legs from the summer exhibition are kind of straightforward. Here’s a zebra, here’s a flamingo. Normally I would merge something else with them so it becomes slightly absurdist, or paint the zebra pink. But I didn't do that with the legs for some reason. Those were just an exploration in form in three dimensions.
So tell me a little bit more about the process of making those legs for the summer exhibition.
Well, I’m trained as a painter. So I build sculptural stuff really intuitively. I don't follow any game plan. With the limbs, I create a form using chicken wire, and then I'll wrap a fabric around them to create a skin. And a lot of those limbs have hinges for knees or ankles because I was originally going to make large interactive puppets out of them.
But I get the most excited about working with the surface of the form, with the paint that I'm applying to the outer edge of the form. Seeing how it moves around, brings the viewer around the object, makes them want to look at it from different angles.
Do you enjoy when people want to go up and touch the work?
Yes, yes. I noticed a lot of people were drawn to the black bear leg. For some reason it just beckons you to come in and touch it. It's insanely soft. So I think that's kind of fun. Because they're playful renditions. They’re not drawn to exact measurements — they’re kind of contorted or elongated limbs. And maybe that makes it more inviting?
I don’t know, it’s always interesting to me because in children's books you’re taught “the bear makes this sound,” “the horse makes this sound,” “pigs are gross and dirty” — everyone's brought up with these anthropomorphic animals. Teddy bears are soft and cute, but they’re modeled after a vicious, wild creature. So there's already that juxtaposition of cute and terror.
Photo by Walker Esner
That makes a lot of sense. And if we go one step further out, when you look at these limbs you have to unlearn how you take in an exhibition. Part of your brain says, “don't touch things in art exhibits!” But then another part really wants to touch it. So maybe when the gallery attendant’s not looking I’ll touch this bear leg for a little bit, and then run away into the next room.
Yeah, I like that. I don’t like how serious some art things can be. Like, when I first created the legs and had a show in Brooklyn, a friend asked, “what kind of reaction do you want people to have when they see these?” And then that actually happened at the opening.
I don’t know, it's really exciting to just stand amongst them. Even when building them in my studio, it was fun have them all congregated around me.
It's like you're lost in a forest of very tall animals.
[Laughs] Yeah. Definitely like a forest. And part of me wants to make more to make the forest more dense, but then people might be less inclined to walk amongst them. If it’s too tight they’d be worried about pushing or hurting them.
I think artworks are usually a lot more resilient than people give them credit for. Like, having worked at the Wassaic Project, there's a lot of times where there are pieces just sitting around. And you’ll accidentally bump into them but then realize, “oh, they can they can take a hit.”
So it's not like someone like touching the bear leg is going to snap it in half and ruin it. They can handle that sort of interaction.
I think that’s also why I’m interested in incorporating some movement and hinges into them. I didn't have enough time to fully think through, like, if someone were using a handle to move one of the limbs. I wanted to make sure that the legs were strong enough to withstand stand a child or an adult pulling on it. I think that's why I omitted that at the last minute — I didn’t want to put them up and have them break immediately. Because then that’d be about something else.
Something about “the fragility of the physical form.”
[Laughs] Yeah, too heavy-handed.
And that cycles back to what you were talking about earlier. You don't want your work to be heavy-handed and about an idea first. You want to get that excited reaction first, that childlike play.
Great. And what specifically have you been working on in your time in Wassaic, then? You mentioned drawings and paintings of hybrid forms, but have you been working on anything else?
Besides the pinecone/feather hybrid drawings I started some soft sculptural pieces. I’ve also been making some paper wings with joints — just trying to mimic how a wing works. And then currently I’m in the wood shop breaking down to the bare bones of a wing. I don’t know if it’ll work, but it’s exciting to be figuring out the mechanics first, rather than the surface.
You mentioned you're trained as a painter, so are you self taught in that puppetry side of the work, too?
Yeah, I met a puppeteer and got to go behind a stage set and see behind the skirts of the puppets and how they were built. After that show I went home and made one, I was so excited about it.
I've also done costume work where I created some animal legs that velcroed onto dancers, and then a choreographer planned out a dance using these four girls with animal legs attached as extensions of their bodies. And I was really interested in that because the human became the hybrid.
So is that the next step? Moving beyond the hybridization of animal forms into the hybridization of the human form?
Possibly. I'm still thinking on it, but I'm so obsessed with these animal limbs, and all the varieties that I’m not as excited about human forms. I don’t know, I think any hybrid is exciting. I want to pursue every idea.
Photos by Verónica González Mayoral