Jessica Thalmann is a Toronto-based visual artist.
Interview by Rebeccah Love
In high school your work really stood out at your final art show, particularly your pieces capturing travellers on the TTC. What themes were you exploring as a teenager?
It's funny to reflect on my work made 10 years ago and thinking about my mindset when I started as a painter. Without really knowing or understanding it, I think I was interested in the ways cities and urban environment physically or emotionally impact its inhabitants. I would take photographs of people in the subway or find images of street photographers trekking thought the city. I would paint them using only black and white oil paints on large canvases. If you were to asked me when I was 17, I was thinking about loneliness and isolation (like most angsty teens). But really, my obsession with the subways, transit, public spaces and architecture was strong then and now. Especially my predilection towards black and white imagery!
When you were researching university programs at the end of your high school years, did you know for sure you wanted to pursue a BFA? Did you have any internal debates about programs?
I was pretty headstrong and wanted to do a BFA no matter what in visual arts. It was just a question of Canada or the USA. I had applied to the US for some of the higher ranked schools and liberal arts schools but the price tag of a four-year undergrad was just too much. And honestly, I wasn’t ready to leave Toronto so quickly and needed a year or two to gain confidence and mature before I could leave. In my second year at York I did an exchange in Painting and Drawing at Parsons in NYC. I’m glad I took the time I needed, because living in NYC on my own was terrifying, but it made my work better.
You completed your undergraduate degree at York University. What was the artistic community like on campus? Where did the visual arts students like to hang out? What were some of the artists or movements that excited you during this time?
The York Fine Art community was pretty amazing, but honestly very isolated and seperate from other York students. I hung out with mostly Theatre and Film majors and dated a playwright, so that cross disciplinary vibe really changed my path and my interests. We all used to be studio rats, working in the studios until late at night, then hanging out at the Absynthe Pub on campus. We would go to each other's openings and eating free food and drinking free wine. It was a really fun time experimenting with different disciplines and I discovered photography in my 2nd year and moved away from painting in a more substantial way.
I loved Jeff Wall, Gregory Crewdson and all of the narrative photographers working at that time. I tried to emulate their work by setting up elaborate sets and using actors for a single image. We also took on the sensibilities and styles of our professors, and I started to make work about my family, thinking about archives and memory.
How did your visual sensibilities change throughout your undergraduate degree?
My program was pretty interdisciplinary so I did performance, printmaking, drawing/painting and photography. But I also started thinking about my elderly grandparents in a more meaningful way. I started photographing them, interviewing them about their experiences as Holocaust survivors and going through our family albums as part of my process. I started thinking about the nature of memory and trauma and reading MAUS by Art Spiegelman and Avant guard comics. I think my aesthetic was very dark, with stark contrasts and very raw.
What is ICP-Bard College? How did your Master’s degree transform your practice? What themes were you exploring?
After graduating from my BFA, again, I was headstrong and knew I wanted to quickly get my masters so I could start teaching and become an art star. Unfortunately, that’s not at all how the art world works. It might work for 1% of practicing artists, but I needed some time to mature and figure things out, so I actually said no to an MFA at Concordia. Instead I started working as a Gallery Assistant at TIFF and then at the Doris McCarthy Gallery doing more curatorial and administrative work. I had always curated show in my undergrad and flirted with the idea of becoming a full-time curator, but after a while I became increasingly jealous of the artists that I worked with as we put their exhibitions together. I missed making work and being in the studio. I knew that there was a whole line of inquiry that I hadn’t had the time or emotional energy to engage with yet.
So, two years later after working full time and trying to maintain my practice, I quit my job and moved to NYC for a Masters of Fine Arts in Advanced Photographic Studies at Bard College. It was the most transformative experience. The program was photo-based but the Chair, Nayland Blake, really encouraged us to think about imagemaking in a contemporary way; incorporating video, sculpture, text, performance, bookmaking etc… I was exposed to most experimental photo-based work and visited museums every week to really understand the value of seeing artwork in person.
Your sculptural photographs are remarkable both visually and conceptually. What does the act of folding paper mean to you? What is going through your mind when you fold these images? And what do you think about when you see the finished product?
The bulk of my MFA Thesis exhibition was made in the last 3 months before my opening in April, though the experimentations and work leading up to that point were pivotal to its formation. It started from a particularly brutal studio visit I had with a successful artist to break away from what I was doing. I started a new line of inquiry photographing Brutalist architecture and investigating a family tragedy: the 1992 Fabrikant shooting at Concordia University. I delved into the CBC archives and found VHS footage of the shooting, the aftermath and the subsequent trial; then revisited the Hall Building where it happened.
The folding came in as both a metaphor for the schism I was feeling while also being a physical rupture interrupting the image. It was difficult for me to tackle a traumatic experience where my uncle, Phiovos Ziogas, was killed during the massacre. I was dealing with the reverberations of his death throughout the family and my memories of the incident as a 4-year-old. The act of folding a photograph, for me was destructive but also empowering. I took back my own agency from these cold authoritarian buildings and worked through what I was feeling. I created something organic and fluid from sterile geometric architecture.
How does place play a role in your work, either thematically or practically? Were you overwhelmed by New York City? Inspired by it? How do you find it differs from Toronto?
I really missed Toronto while I was living in NYC for 4 years. As I began photographing, I realized that the skin of both cities is very different. Toronto is made of porous concrete and shiny transparent glass while New York is gilded and ornamented with an older eclectic sensibility of stone, metal grates and fire escapes.
What were some of your favourite exhibits you worked on at the Doris McCarthy Gallery?
Hands down, David R. Harper’s Entre le chien et le loupe exhibition. His practice is fascinating: combining embroidery, ceramics, taxidermy and sculpture in such a brilliant way. I had a blast assisting him on installing his work and documenting his process with a time-lapse video. He is one of the most fascinating young Canadian artists working with textiles and ceramics, a traditionally feminine craft.
Which artists are you following closely today?
Letha Wilson is an amazing artist, mentor and friend. Her photo-sculptures and architectural installations have been a major influence on my work. Lately, I’ve been looking at Rana Begum, a British minimalist who uses color in very bold ways. Annie Truitt, Lygia Clark. I guess, I’m really feeling the lady minimalist vibe!!
What are you looking forward to?
I have a group exhibition opening at Elizabeth Houston Gallery as part of PHOTO.LA opening next week in NYC. I have a small solo exhibition coming up at Angell Gallery in 2018 of large scale folded works.