Paint, Ads, and Pharmaceuticals with Jeff Ostergren
This is the first stop, a podcast with the aim of exploring the minds of artists in and around New Haven.
Jeff Ostergren is a multimedia artist working in sculpture, painting, performance, and digital video. His work tackles addiction desire corporate greed, legal drug abuse, philosophy, and gender among other things. In much of his art, Jeff examines the ways in which our bodies absorb substances like pharmaceuticals and processed food and are altered by them. He also investigates how the corporate messaging for these products can lead us into a physical and psychological dependency, while at the same time becoming its own kind of mind-altering drug. In this podcast we’ll be discussing several of Jeff's hyper saturated abstract paintings, which are made up of pigment and crushed Pharmaceuticals like viagra and Zoloft, and artificially flavored foods. The paintings often take on the bright corporate hues found in medications and sports drinks. We will briefly discuss Jeff's early performance work as well as his darkly humorous video work satirizing pharmaceutical ads.
The works discussed in this podcast can be found on our blog at FirstStopArt.com.
David: I think one of the things that you kind of reveal in your work--it's not something that we don't know about--but your work really drives home the lack of subtlety in advertising, but at the same time, advertising is so subliminal. It’s this weird kind of duality with with advertising where they trick us into thinking that it's about something, and then they show us all this stuff that suggests something else like the the more obvious stuff is like pharmaceutical ads--seeing just like happy families walking in front of big white houses with yellow labs and stuff and the lighting…
I wanted to play the "Ask Your Doctor" ad which is basically a montage of all these different pharmaceutical ads.
When I was watching that I started thinking about that um what are they called? That media company that's been buying up all the all the local news--
Jeff: Sinclair Media.
David: --like a little bit, even though it's different from Sinclair media there was this sense of the insidiousness of these advertisements just the way that you like focus in on that and sort of pull it out. There was something about that that was kind of--it was really spooky. How did you kind of come up with that idea?
Jeff: I think it just, I mean, this is where sort of, at least in my head, the work is like kind of wonky. I just sort of became really really interested in these pharmaceutical ads as these kind of standalone objects. They're impeccably crafted and beautiful and sort of surrealist in their own ways, but in doing research about them, you know, I sort of discovered all these things. There are actually very few countries in the world that allow this kind of direct to consumer marketing of pharmaceuticals. So the U.S. is one. Canada is, and I think New Zealand and just a couple others. Most countries don't, and so in many of these places like the U.S., they sort of are more or less required to follow a certain set of standards in their script so they have to include side-effects-- a list of side effects; Many of them include this--seem to whether it's sort of necessary or not--but they include this phrase “ask your doctor.” There's other kinds of small print warnings that have to be displayed on there, but it--you know--absolutely.
When you sort of do that--when you cut that phrase out “ask your doctor,” you know, leaving it with the original image that's on there intact, and you start to stack those up, it becomes really crazy. It becomes a sort of crazy form of language repetition. But then you really begin to see what the underlying image is. It becomes an interesting way of letting the viewer see all these kind of disjunctive images that are sort of happening along with this text, you know, which is completely in itself though, you know, “ask your doctor” it becomes a mantra in a sense, but it's also, you know, in part contributing to the the massive amount of pharmaceuticals consumed.
David: When I was watching some of those performance videos where--I think there was one where you're kind of like, I don't know if I might be conflating a few of them together, but you're--I think you have a green mask over your face, and there's a wine barrel and you're sort of gluttonously drinking wine out of it, or out of a bag? It kind of gave me this sense of maybe what it looks like when you go into your studio late at night. And I really pictured before your studio renovation: Jeff in the garage like making work and doing like weird stuff.
Jeff: Yeah. I think that maybe it's not totally unlike that. I mean that was actually a piece that I did back when I was in LA in my studio in Los Angeles. But it was sort of part of a big project that in some ways--yeah it has a nice parallel to just sort of daily art practice, but you know sort of built upon all these other kind of themes that you mentioned earlier.
David: Yeah. Do you consider the work that you do, the sculptures that you make, the paintings that you make--is that process to you kind of performative?
Jeff: Yeah, to some degree I mean it's--I'm very interested in the idea of working with this sort of, especially these kind of molecular objects that we ingest, so you know, whether it's pharmaceuticals, or snack foods, or energy drinks they have they have various forms, right. They have a kind of molecular form that that impacts the body. Literally they have a visual form that either draws us to them or repels us from them. They have a form of advertising--a set of visuals with them, so, when making the work, sometimes I'm really interested in this idea of a transference or a contamination in a way that when we ingest something, it alters our body. And that may be an intentional ingestion, a scheduled pharmaceutical or a bag of Doritos you buy down at the the corner store--or it can be incidental, right, we have traces of pharmaceuticals in our drinking water, and I'm interested in this idea in the same way that, you know, when you are walking down the street you don't know what's in somebody's body.
You don't necessarily know what's in all these objects without without me telling you so, but I, you know, I mean, yeah, I'm interested in this process of infusing them with with things sometimes that can be a very--especially in the painting process where, I'm mixing in these objects and sometimes actually pressing canvases together--almost like I sort of think of it as like a frottage process, right. So, it's it's almost a physical transference between between works so that multiple works will contain the same materials. They pass them between each other just as humans can pass ideas or diseases, you know, influences back and forth between each other, so you know, I don't want to go in there to mix them. I don't necessarily think of it as purely performative, but I think there is that element in there for sure, right?
David: So gosh, there's so much. I feel like there's so much to talk about with your work. When you were mentioning the frottage, it made me think of the mechanical paintings. You sort of already described the process, but would you mind describing those particular paintings and what you do?
Jeff: Sure. Yeah, I mean there's a wide variety of ways in which I ended up doing--I'm not very consistent. What I do is sort of intentional, but in general, I try to build up a series of layers on one or more canvases at the same time as I'm applying paint--sometimes pigment sometimes directly applying some kind of substance whether it's an energy drink, or a weed killer, or alcohol; actually sort of just applying them directly.
Sometimes it's mixing them in with the paint-- and you know I'm not being terribly sort of clear about it. But it's not really clear when I actually make it. Sometimes it's purely abstract. Sometimes I'm actually trying to paint something, but it usually involves kind of producing a layer on one surface, producing a layer on another surface, and then instead of pressing them, rubbing them together, you know.
And frottage has this kind of--I can have a fairly innocuous meaning in terms of just sort of a rubbing, right. You can create gravestone rubbings and things like that, but it also has a kind of sexualized meaning as well. And I'm certainly interested in playing off of those things, but I think it's interesting to kind of put these things together to create this kind of transference, but then also to create some kind of simulation of contact between--whether it's between humans, or between ideas or substances.
Sometimes it'll be between sort of two canvases, and they'll make a like a diptych when they're finished
Jeff: Other times I use magazine pages and sort of will press them throughout the the larger canvas, or I even use the magazine pages, often times to clean up it's excess paint and then press them to produce their own work, producing a large number of sort of smaller associated works. And that's partly I mean--I'm probably making a, you know, a vague environmental attempt to not actually throw any paint away. So there’s nothing sort of discarded. Everything is kind of preserved as as an art object, but also again, there's this kind of residual production that happens as things sort of you know fade down to nothingness--where there's nothing left to to transfer.
David: Very interesting. That makes sense. It does. I mean it does make sense. Do you feel like pharmaceuticals are sort of the epitome of what's going on in our society? This sort of way of distracting us from ourselves and influencing us and using hypnotic language?
Does it go beyond pharmaceuticals in your mind?
Jeff: Yeah. Absolutely. I mean, I think sort of--what you were just saying, it’s a big part of it, right that, um, I think in a lot of ways they are the sort of epitome of things. I mean, it's always been hard for me to really articulate the bigger picture, but for me, it's about this sort of repetitious, synthetic sort of bite-sized consumption of things. So, whether it's a pill a day, you know, taken from a bottle or a blister pack that's sort of, you know, every dosage is the same. Every color is always the same so that every, you know, Cheeto in the bag that is synthetically produced and you know, well, not identical. You know, sort of a set of possible forms.
I think we can even extend that to social media and the bite size of the tweet, or the the square Instagram photo--that there’s this kind of this steady stream of small bits. Part of pharmaceuticals interest to me has also always been time--that there's a kind of regulation of time, whether it's taking one pill a day or going through a cycle of birth control pills, or you know, a lot of sort of the packaging for pharmaceuticals will come--sometimes it's a bottle, but you get a dosage for a set amount of time. Or you get a month's dose; or you get a blister pack with seven days worth of this, and seven days, you know.
So everything is about it sort of regulating time. It’s a way of kind of structuring our lives, and that I think, falls along with how we--our workweek. It falls along with our consumption of culture. It falls along with all these kind of structures that that we engage with.
And then--and so I'm not certainly trying to be romantic about some sort of past before everything was in the factory and synthetic, but I'm just really interested in the way that this
is kind of present-day life where everything is this kind of--whether it's something you're consuming or just going to the dollar store, or the grocery store, you know, it's sort of-- Everything is highly regulated, highly synthetic. You're going to get the same can of Campbell's soup here as in California as in Europe, you know, as in Asia and in many cases. So it's sort of you know: how does this?-- it is a kind of a stand-in, right. And I think pharmaceuticals have this visual component of the advertising that makes them particularly appealing to me, but it could be probably other things that say the same thing.
David: One of the things that I started--and I hadn't have fully had this understanding about your work, and I should probably pose it as a question instead of just like telling you what your work is about.
Jeff: I'd like to know that.
David: But I--so this gave me kind of a weird insight into your work: So of course I'm taking pharmaceuticals as a lot of people do for various ailments--perhaps manufactured needs. And one of the pills that I have to take--you have to take it with food. And they come in these--they're these little orange kind of shiny objects, and they have, you know, a sugar coating, and when you put them in your mouth, it tastes like, you know, it tastes sweet--kind of like a vague sweetness. And I was rushing, and I was chewing on my cereal, and I just threw the pill in my mouth, and I bit down into the capsule and all the medicine started seeping out and it just tasted like acrid chemical. And it started to make me think about what you're doing with your paintings.
And I--tell me if this is true or not,or if you see this--but I see you in some ways as both playing with the idea of the anesthetization of medication, using color as you were talking about the blister packs to kind of appeal to us like fishing lures, or something, because you're painting right? You're painting with color, but also it seems to me like you're trying to crack them open and reveal them as a substance that people consume. And there's a kind of muddiness often times--especially with some of the synthetic paintings that you did where you're like rubbing them in. Is that something that you're thinking about? Are you thinking about this idea of like taking them out of their packaging?
Jeff: Yeah absolutely. I mean the packaging is of interest to me, but it's of note that that's one of
the few things I don't really us in my works either sculpturally or or two dimensionally. I mean I have on occasion, but I mean in part that's been really done--like Damien Hirst did a lot. I'm using the packaging. And the packaging can be interesting, but I I'm ultimately interested in them as substances, right, and even like a very formal way of the word substance, right, that it has this kind of seriousness to it.
A big a big part of the--and this isn't really ever apparent in the work, but just like as part of the mindset behind it-- is when I started working with pharmaceuticals in grad school and art school, I sort of came across this text by Jacques Derrida where he talks about this passage and a work by Plato--I think called the the Phaedrus, and basically it talks about this idea of the pharmacon which is the Greek--it's a word of Greek origin of the word pharmaceutical. But at this point in Greece the pharmacon ment both cure and poison simultaneously. This this substance that you would receive they could be both. And it also meant paint, so it also was the idea of paint or even like makeup--a color or a pigment that was applied that could be--It could hide something-- as we saw sort of like makeup hiding something. It could enhance or make something artificial. It had this kind of ominous connection to the body, to the physical, to something being, you know, a potential source of a cure, or or something that could be harmful.
And so this became really fascinating to me that this single term could kind of encompass all these things. And I began to think about the similarities and the production of medicine and paint over the years, so even going back to this interest in the synthetic. Thousands of years ago medicine was produced by finding some sort of a substance out in the world--a natural substance: bark, berries, leaves, and oftentimes breaking that down into something, putting it into a binder--like maybe a rough kind of binder but some sort of a way to consume it. And paint was the same way. Artists would grind their own pigments--make them from minerals and natural substances. And they would have to form it with some kind of a binder or whether it was egg tempera or some kind of a, you know, oil-based material. And gradually those have sort
of in--some cases almost hand-in-hand--over the years moved to a more synthetic kind of production where it's controlled. Where it's regulated. Where art is a very regulated kind of process with structures of power within it that institutions that approve, or you know, reject sort of forms of art.
And so it was the same thing with the medical profession It’s very formalized now. And
then, you know,the production of pills, and the production of paint are now highly regulated and synthetic. So in the same way we can get the can of soup that's the same anywhere, you're gonna get the same pill anywhere, and you're gonna get the same paint tube of cerulean blue at one art store here, or you know across the country. So I'm taking the pill out of the package and grinding the pill up back into a powder sort of returning it. It's not really its natural state because it's synthetic, but I’m sort of returning it to as close to a molecular state as I can get it mixing it in with paint that often matches the color of the the logo for the advertising, and then deploying that on a canvas in some way. And you know, you use the word ‘muddy’ and that happens a lot with a--sort of intentionally --where things sort of mix together so that, you know, if the viagra blue and the orange for sort of adderall mixed together, and in the canvas they're gonna, it's going to produce a kind of muddy color. I tend to work intentionally very aggressively you know sort of while paint is still wet, so things bleed together.
David: Are you trying to subvert the messaging that these pharmaceutical companies are trying to promote by neutralizing the colors?
Jeff: it's a--I mean it's--I don't know if I'm explicitly trying to do that. I think that maybe is an interesting kind of result of it. I think I'm just sort of trying to sort of mimic the way that things get diluted. And even in in our bodies then--things aren't clean, you know. They start out as these kind of clean pristine kind of pills and they go into your body, and they're absorbed, and then they they work or they don't work, or they have side effects, or they combine with other medications that you're on to produce kind of side effects, or they combine with, you know; if you took that pill without the food, it would have a different effect on you then if it you took it with the food. And you know it's--
I sort of like the idea of it being--I mean I like that the paintings I make are sort of messy and kind of not necessarily intentionally ugly, but they they aren’t
necessarily intentionally beautiful either. They have a kind of--just sort of a rawness to them, which I think is to me sort of very, very human.
David: So there's sort of a digestive, intestinal quality to them.
Jeff: Yeah that's a great way to put it.
David: I see that. I see the way that they sort of bleed into--that that painting Profit--that's probably the least muddy actually of them, but it sort of shows, maybe, if we were using the digestive tract as a metaphor like the moment it all hits the stomach and starts blending into each other. It's almost like a kind of frozen moment.
In this particular one, we're working with Mio water enhancer.
David: Can you describe what that is?
Jeff: Yeah, it's some some kind of a thing that you put into--it's like a little bottle, and you--it's sort of heavily pigmented and flavored, so you would just squirt a little bit of into your regular glass of tap water to give it some extra flavor. But the you know I'm interested in it because the colors are so bright. The commercials are strange. They kind of have this hallucinogenic quality to them. The commercials also mimic a lot of kind of art pieces that have been about artists sort of squirting pigments into water and letting them diffuse and things like that. They're kind of very aestheticized and especially because they're they're sort of excessively pigmented because they're meant to be diluted in water. So they're great if you sort of spray them on the canvas.
It becomes a very sort of abstract expressionist kind of splattery quality, and then when it dries it some of the pigments fade. Some of them blend, and so become really muddy--and others become, you know, sort of really, really bright on the canvas when they dry.
Jeff: So, in that case, it's a very specific piece that there's no no pharmaceutical content. So it doesn't have to have that, but it's again, that's been a very kind of interesting synthetic product that, you know, becomes used to produce a certain look.
David: And it sort of becomes a--It's almost an invented need.
David: We need water. We don't necessarily need our water to have a certain unnatural color.
Jeff: It doesn't need to be a wild berry flavor.
Jeff: Yeah and these, you know, and all these things have a very set palette in a way. These products have, you know, not that many colors that are used at the end of the day. In terms of their logos and advertising there’s, you know, reds, and oranges,and yellows, and blues--maybe green, a little bit of purple you know. But it's like these these very sort of--it's a surprisingly sort of generic usage of color, which is interesting .
David: That is interesting. It would be interesting to figure out what the research is on particular colors. I mean obviously the blue viagra is kind of a gendered color, but then certain things that are, you know, meant to be consumed, or you think about like the McDonald's red, and you know, people used to tell me that maybe it was supposed to make you hungry or something like that but uh--
Jeff: Right, yeah. There's all kinds of sort of psychological profiles on what these colors do, and whether they're being used that way or not is unclear.
David: You sort of already talked a little bit about, you know, the frottage process, and that I guess you sort of paint on to like a plexi or plastic?
Jeff: In some cases, yes. In some cases, I wouldn't rub it in. In most of the cases for these, I was painting onto the canvas itself, and then rubbing it against another canvas, or in some cases against a sheet of plastic, and then often leaving it, the sheet of plastic, attached in the front. I was using mostly oils so it dry and stick to the plastic. But it warped the plastic over time from the the various oils and the the thinner in there.
David: Was the plastic meant to stay on the canvas?
Jeff: Yeah, yeah. It was it was just a means of kind of kind of creating the image. And then it would be, you know, sort of discarded.
David: As kind of an intermittent acne sufferer I sometimes watch these YouTube videos on like different ways of, you know, dealing with acne or treating it, or treating acne scarring, and there's this thing called derma needling. And there are these procedures people have, and they stick needles into their face--like they have a certain length, and the idea behind it is you kind of are supposed to stimulate collagen growth, and then they'll put some kind of medication or ointment--or sometimes it's like stem cells. And they like rub this kind of gel onto plastic stuff and just lay it over the face. And for some reason when I was reading your description on your website--just because I'm thinking about medical stuff when I--that's not all I think about when I see your work, but I just thought of that for some reason--like the body absorbing chemical or substance through the dermis. And these paintings are sort of like that.
Jeff: Yeah well, I mean, I think a lot of people think about--can think about painting as like a skin, right?
Jeff: Canvas is a kind of skin, and so absolutely, I mean I think if I'm interested in absorption and contamination, then I've got to be thinking of these things as skins in some ways. I mean some of them are these--the sort of taller pieces in this particular series that we've been talking about, they're actually sized to be the the height of the average American human.
David: Oh wow! Cool!
Jeff: And they're oriented vertically, so they're they're pretty explicitly kind of figurative right.
Jeff: There's no figurative imagery in them or none, and very little intentionally, but they're yeah they're-- so I think that's a really great way to think about it is that there's a kind of relationship to the to the body, right? The skin is one of our means of keeping things in and out. The other is like our our senses or our brains in some ways, right, are processing information, accepting information, and so I think it's interesting to think about how things get through those those barriers.
David: Sometimes it's the crazy advertisements
Jeff: Sure yeah. Sometimes it’s the crazy ads.
David: Sometimes it's drugs right?
Jeff: Sometimes it's drugs. Sometimes it's Twitter. Sometimes it’s crazy talk show radio hosts that are barraging people with these kind of stories that slip into their consciousness and their worldview. So I think there's a lot of ways we can look at these things.
David: And your diptych paintings are sort of a--I mean they can be seen as a bunch of different things. You mentioned binary code. But they're also, in some respects a kind of stand-in for for the human brain or the animal brain right? and that they're you --you mentioned them as as hemispheres.
Jeff: Yeah, I like the idea of thinking--I mean, and I like the openness of a hemisphere. It could be a global hemisphere. It could be a brain hemisphere. But I've always been interested in that too--this kind of split brain--the two halves of the brain and these kind of various biological and sort of mythological ways we think about that. You know I mean we talk about the left brain and the right brain being different, and they they are to some degree, but it also seems like there's evidence that it's not always the case, or that certain brains can take over functions from the other if one side is injured and so they're kind of adaptable in a way. But I'm interested in that. I mean that's part of how I like to think about the diptych pieces and putting them together makes sort of like a full sort of object in a way.
David: I immediately thought of the Rorschach test when I saw that you press them together just because that's one of--that's sort of--they don't look like ink blots at all, but the method of folding made me think of an ink blot that's used in psychological testing
Jeff: Yeah, absolutely, and I mean it's actually something I've had to try to avoid with them because it’s sort of so--it's such an immediate result so many times when pressing them together, and it's also, there’s something so pleasurable about making Rorschach ink blots--you know, like just taking pages and folding them with with paint or ink in the middle. There’s something I find very sort of soothing and interesting. It both kind of involves chance, but there's also some kind of level of control over it, so--and it's something that many artists have done, so I've had to kind of consciously at times avoid.
There will be times when I'll make something, and it looks too much like a Rorschach, and I’ll then cover it with other layers or remove it and sort of start over just so to prevent that from happening. But I think that's sort of bound to be an incidental read and that's certainly okay. It's certainly something that people can relate to.
David: So with the diptychs, you work on them as separate paintings. Is that correct? Like you take two paintings, you work on them as separate paintings, and then you put them together and kind of print the other one’s information on--is that how that works?
Jeff: Yeah, and again, I sort of intentionally--the system is open, so there's a constant variation. But that's definitely something I do a lot--will be to be to paint on them each individually. Sometimes it's the same image. Sometimes it's a mirrored image, and then sort of press them together and sort of transfer portions of that image together, but then sometimes also paint and treat them as a single image and paint a sort of scene that flows over both of them. Other times, they'll be sort of creating abstract kind of printings or pressings on both of them. I also change the position of them constantly sort of flipping them upside down, so it's never a kind of clean, mirrored image. Intentionally, I sort of try to make it that if--no matter how they're kind of arranged next to each other, there would be a kind of relationship. Sometimes they're sort of being connected horizontally or then vertically. And and if the viewer wanted to, they could take some time and try to put things together. They could see how there are lines that move through both of them, but are not connected because of how their positioned.
So it's I mean, it's one of the things that, I think again, maybe makes the work challenging sometimes is that it doesn't have a really obvious sort of read in terms of how it was made. It's--I tend to get bored if the system is really very clear-cut, so I sort of keep--I keep changing it up. I keep altering it, but that makes it less clear in terms of the final production. But I guess that's sort of interesting to me to have this kind of--there's clues in there, but there's also a lot of ambiguity I guess.
David: I really, really like visually the magazine diptychs a lot. What made you decide to work with a non archival material like oil paint that is going to eventually eat away at the magazine pages rather than something like acrylic, or a gouache, or something like that?
Jeff: I mean I definitely do some in acrylic and gouache, but no matter what, the--because in most cases, I'm using the--for these smaller pieces on on actual magazine pages, I'm using the the magazine page itself, right, so it's it's--By definition it's not archival magazine--
David: Right, that's true.
Jeff: They’re flimsy. The ink is sort of not meant to be archival. They're meant to be disposable, right, just like a newspaper. So I mean, in part, you know--it's, I think--the just like--talking about the sort of moving image television commercials before, I think the the magazine ads are also kind of a, you know, like a still version of that. and there are also to me these very beautiful, powerful objects. And so even though in some ways it seems limiting in a way, in terms of their archivalness, I like having some version of the work that has that kind of really explicit reference to the to the origin, right. So if I paint on a pharmaceutical ad, it's just sort of right there in your face--or a financial company ad. You know you get this kind of really immediate indexical kind of relationship--’this is what I'm talking about,’ right. And it's--the painting is happening on there.
David: And you choose to reveal certain parts of ads, or certain phrases that seem to have a meaning to you?
Jeff: Right yeah. And sometimes--there’s some that I do where I cover the whole page, and there's nothing left. They could be monochromes, or sort of you know just
super saturated with paint. Other times it's just a small amount. And other times, yeah, it's a very kind of--I intentionally sort of like leave this kind of amazing catch phrase, or a major amazing image present. I mean at the end of the day, I probably justify it in the sense of--it's--it goes back to, again like sort of the body, right; that our bodies are not archival. Our bodies absorb things and break things down and have half-lives. And our bodies themselves eventually will, you know, will collapse and break down, and die and rot, right so that, you know, most of my work isn't really archival in a way, and that's, I guess, kind of okay with. me
Jeff: I don't know that down the line maybe that presents a problem to conservators, and that's you know--I've talked to a couple conservators that describe my work as a nightmare to deal with. You know but that's probably long after I'm gone,
David: You can let them deal with it.
Jeff: And conceptually, I guess I don't mind that there's a kind of built in decay to the work. There's a lot of work that I like that exists in that way where it has an age well over the years.
David: What are some works that you really admire?
Jeff: Let's see. I mean there's so many I feel like that are that are influential. I mean, in terms of works, let’s say, that are not archival, you know, the works of say Alberto Burri or Yves Klein where these kind of really kind of aggressive takes on paintings where they're being burned and kind of stitched together and, you know, really kind of aggressively treated. Klein's interest in pigments--his IKB international Klein Blue. Another artist that's really kind of dominant for me is Eduardo Paolozzi. He's a British sculptor and also made these really kind of amazing prints. He was a great printmaker--silk screens and lithographs. And I'm more interested in his sculpture in particular, but where he's sort of pressing all these different objects into things and creating these sort of distorted figurative shapes, or using objects of industry to kind of combine these sort of kind of mutated forms, so there, I mean there' some different older artists I think that that have been a big influence. Eva Hesse and her work in terms of just sort of experimenting with forms and alternative materials, or Lynda Benglis in the same way kind of combining things. I think sort of more recent artists people like Rachel Harrison, her use of color and and objects and it's really kind of really kind of powerful. Haim Steinbach or somebody like that kind of using, again, found objects in a certain way.
Painting wise, I think you know I've been influenced by a lot of German painters like Sigmar Polke who was really experimental in his use of materials or Martin Kippenberger. I think for him maybe more in terms of the imagery--that he would use this huge broad range of imagery, and being unafraid to kind of take on a lot of different perspectives. And then Mike Kelley is probably another artist who had an influence--maybe not so much in terms of the visual influence, but just in terms of his interest in kind of taking apart culture and really sort of being unafraid to dissect something and reconfigure it into something else. But those are just a few, and there's--I think there's so many people that are really kind of significant to me.
David: How do you feel about Paul McCarthy as an artist?
Jeff: I think his work is--his body of work is amazing. I think his take on his--the way he explores culture is amazing. The scope of what he's been able to do in terms of sculpture and installation is pretty breathtaking. I think, sometimes I question some of the politics of the work in some ways. I think it can--I don't know if it goes too far, but it's that kind of challenge, if you're mimicking something, are you reproducing it?
David: That's a good point. Yeah, I asked that in a way because I saw a little like--I saw a smidgen of him in your performance work.
David: Like acting out the excesses of, I don't know, life in America.
Jeff: Right. You know, I mean he was-- he's still such a presence in LA where I went to school. I think it was hard for him not to be in most performative work. I mean I ultimately I have sort of ceased that kind of performative work in part because it seemed like it was reproducing things in a way that wasn't useful--maybe kind of a similar issue that I would have with with his work. I mean mine was on such a smaller scale and not even nearly as precise as his work. I've always completely loved the way that he used things like ketchup, and mayonnaise, and chocolate as these kind of stand ins and as these kind of substances that are so ubiquitous. That was absolutely--that has been an influence in my work. And you know how I've-- how I'm able to take these objects from pop culture--from popular consumption and use them. So I'm sure he was someone who was influential in those kind of early performative works.
David: when did you decide you wanted to become an artist?
Jeff: It was pretty late in the process. I mean I majored in anthropology and Gender Studies in undergrad, and I worked in museums--art museums for a while after that. It sort of morphed into, you know, I realized I was interested in--I'd always been interested in art, but I didn't really make a lot of it. And then it wasn't, you know--I didn't go back to school until I was 28. So maybe when I was 26-27, I started to say “I'm working in museums. I should make art too,” and so I started making art and made a portfolio and started applying to grad schools, and you know, began sort of making that my main goal from there on out. But it was a little bit later than a lot of people. I never went to a traditional art school, and so even some things like the painting idea is sort of, I don't want to say self-taught, but it's--I did not have the kind of basic introductory classes for it that a lot of people go through or kind of standard art program.
David: When you look back at your childhood or your life, does it make sense to you that you became an artist?
Jeff: it's an interesting question. I'm not really--I mean it makes sense in the in the sense that, you know, my parents were great about exposing me to art. We would go to a lot of art museums when I was a kid from a you know an early age. And I you know had a real appreciation for it. I remember going to, you know, sort of very kind of popular stuff--impressionist shows and whatnot. But also wrestling with something like Agnes Martin as a, you know, probably a young teenager and just being confused by it, but somehow being intrigued and wanting to know more.
So, but you know, I don't know, in high school I did a photography class that I really liked and I think did okay at, but I sort of liked a lot of things. I liked literature. I liked physics and science. And I started school sort of thinking I was going to be more like an engineer or a physicist or something. And then some, you know, for some reason that just wasn't working, and I moved into more sort of social science historical kind of things.
Yeah, I mean, I don't know, I don't think in a lot of ways it makes a lot of sense that did. I'm an artist. it's kind of it's a cool question because I don't--it's definitely not a path that I would have seen from early on. It wasn't like I was a particularly skilled at drawing or painting or anything as a kid you know.
David: When you were in high school what did you think you were gonna be?
Jeff: I think it was along the lines--I mean my dad was an engineer, so I, you know, I think I was, I sort of thought I would follow in those kind of footsteps with a kind of good solid paying job--you know reliable employment, and so you know I figure I thought of ones along the lines of that. Like I was going to sort of go to college and get a job at some kind of industry--you know physics, or chemistry, or engineering or something. All of which I did well at and really liked a lot, you know, that was definitely kind of my sort of thought point and once I started going to college, I just--they were both sort of too hard for me and too uninteresting in a way. Maybe that's why they were hard. I just sort of lost interest in them and suddenly, you know, all these things that I hadn't really looked at before like gender studies, or like you know kind of looking at different cultures anthropologically became so much more interesting. There were things I hadn't really covered in high school, and so that became really--
David: Yeah. How did you end up majoring in Gender Studies? I mean it sounds like it became something of great interest to you, but what was it that first--you just sort of took a class you're interested in it and then it took off?
Jeff: I mean, I had a head friend--I had some, you know, female friends who were taking a classes in it, and we would all be talking about stuff, and you don't--I don't really know. I mean I've sort of been asked this, or asked myself this before. I think it was just something--it was a, you know, I think as a typical like angst filled teenager you're trying to make sense of the world, and I never quite fit in to like the categories. I wasn't a jock. I wasn't really like a typical nerd. I wasn't like, I wasn't one of the art kids, you know. I wasn't a music kid, so it's sort of I didn't really fit into any particular group. And somehow gender studies to me became this fascinating way of like seeing how all these things were constructed realities.
And gender studies really expands out quickly to cover class, and race, and ethnicity, and sexuality; and so suddenly you start to see how constructed all these roles are that we’re placed into and the kind of norms that for me being like fairly kind of naive--just that you just kind of take for granted: like men kind of do this stuff for the most part, and women do this stuff for the most part. And yeah there's, you know, people can do anything they want, but it's just kind of this--these kind of things and then in Gender Studies you could just--you start to see why that happened, and how that happened, and how dominant it is, and how hard it is to escape that, and there was something about it that is-- not even like I feel like I had a specific question or a specific kind of thing that was answered, but it just it suddenly just made a lot of sense. And very little of my work now is about gender, but I still feel like those skills in terms of like dissecting something are really kind of there from that, right.
David: Not taking stuff at face value.
Jeff: Yeah, exactly, exactly--
Jeff: And understanding that everything is constructed, right, nothing is really inherent. The things we think are sort of biological, or natural, or are typically not there, they're constructed entities in some way. And so that, yeah, I think that's been, it's been a really valuable skill set that I acquired through that.
David: That's fascinating. Thank you so much for taking the time to stop by The First Stop. I thought it was a great conversation, and we hope to have you back.
Jeff: Okay well thank you very much. it was great-- it was great talking.
You can follow Jeff on Instagram at Jeff Ostergren, spelled J E F F O S T E R G R E N.
Special thanks to Bruce barber, director of WNHU for providing the resources and guidance to make this podcast possible.