An interview with the artist Jaclyn Jacunski, whose work is on display at the Weinberg/Newton Gallery

by Jacob Naszke

Jacob Naszke: I’m one of the youth curators of Weinberg/Newton Gallery’s current show, Bold Disobedience. The gallery will showcase my conversations with artists from Bold Disobedience to spotlight the issues these artists and my fellow young curators want to speak up about in our day-to-day conversations. This week we will be focusing on Jaclyn Jacunski.

Bold Disobedience is a group exhibition presented in collaboration with Mikva Challenge, on view from June 23 – September 2, 2017. Selected by a council of twelve student curators, this collection of works demonstrates myriad social issues that matter to youths today. The exhibition comprises works by local professional artists as well as student artists from the Chicago High School for the Arts. These artworks grapple with the issues that our team of student curators have deemed most critical in our conflicted contemporary culture, promoting racial justice, economic equity, and queer rights. The student curators have directed every aspect of this exhibition, from research to conceptualization to installation.

Jaclyn Jacunski is a Chicago-based artist and has recently completed the BOLT Residency at the Chicago Artists Coalition. Her works takes on various formats, like printmaking, installation, and sculpture, and are tied around themes of community and its boundaries. Her artwork draws from protests and acts of resistance in local communities and examines how one discovers a more equitable, interesting life. Currently, she thinks about how these things manifest in signs in the landscape and media, while paying attention to how an individual’s voice is revealed out in the world in relation to mass culture and powerful systems. She works at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago at the Earl and Brenda Shapiro Center for Research and Collaboration, working to promote artist led research and culture.

Weinberg/Newton Gallery: You have two installations in Bold Disobedience, By Ways & Means and The Super Local. Can you speak on the issues that both works are addressing?

Jaclyn Jacunski: By Ways & Means is a system of pathways made of chain link fences. The fence is devoid of color, scaled down, and abstracted by a repeated pattern. It is a gritty and sobering architectural object surrounding private property, which becomes especially charged when taken out of context into the gallery space. The layout of pathways overlaps and shifts in scale, becoming visually complicated. The pathways and shapes are syncopated around the gallery in addition to a relief sculpture that is installed on a wall, appearing in struggle, pulling away as the chain link is bent and misshapen.

The project merges the atmosphere of the socioeconomic melting pot of Chicago. It is embedded with narratives of the city’s landscape, following a trip from home, through a neighborhood, to school. The work signifies systems that shape communities and lead the audience to consider issues of class and race, which lie beneath capitalist systems. The fence is an architectural object that folds in multiple meanings beyond gentrification. It also speaks to spatial justice, alluding to the prison industrial complex and restricted borders. The fences fashion a relational experience of walking through intimate experiences and spaces in Chicago.

The Super Local was created from west side neighborhood newspapers. The papers hang from library newspaper poles in vertical rows on the gallery’s wall. The top of the installation holds local papers then and gradates downward with paper designs I manipulate by blending and blurring images, which fade away. The papers give voice to the west side area’s lower-income residents, working as both formal and conceptual points of departure for the work. The papers recede into color fields, pulling from the newspaper’s color printing, ranging from a light tone to a dark shade while at the same time redacting and amplifying in intensity.

This installation responds to the sheer density of negative media coverage that creates a psychic mass, an overlay that can sometimes be very tense and aggressive. Citizens of lower income neighborhoods have to participate in these constructs everyday. The local community newspapers provide a counter point of view to the dominant narratives of how one sees Chicago’s west side. Mainstream media builds off of negative stereotypes, which often seem unreasonable to the lived neighborhood life. This local reporting communicates perspectives that are often overlooked – celebrating local achievements, talented people, creative events, strengths, and joys of community life.

WNG: Many of your works center around the urban landscape. What made you choose this subject matter, and how does it connect to the overall ideas of community and collective voice? The Super Local highlights local newspapers from specific Chicago neighborhoods that you have gradually blurred and degraded. It shows how, as a city, we often do not see these as growing, breathing neighborhoods, but instead are left with only a dying image. How do you think the youth community can help fix this? And through your artwork, how do you think you might be able to change it?

JJ: Everyday, Chicago’s urban landscape is the space where I live and physically move through, and I use the experience as a type of research to interpret. It maps out forms and languages of our communal life that we build together. For me, the landscape and the built environment reveal poetic evidence that engages our senses and physical experiences in the world. This evidence helps me to gain understanding of our histories, psychologies, and relationships to power and institutions. I am inspired by the politics of space and the land as spatial justice. I look to it as a means of understanding power and how communities create their own narratives, finding spaces of freedom in the face of segregation and inequality.

I think activating spaces to take on meaningful issues and challenging dominant culture, as the Mikva Challenge curators have done at Weinberg/Newton Gallery, is one way to fix dying neighborhoods. Bold Disobedience shows the type of work that takes on reshaping our city and how people on the local level can essentially transform their neighborhoods and create a new construct within the urban environment. Things like engaging in community-building and cultural activities bring people together: organizing art events and music shows and open mics, making publications that take on issues to build understanding. There are super practical ways to heal our city by volunteering to rehab houses and bikes, help grow food, and mentor kids. In addition, it is important to be brave and speak out, analyze power, call representatives, and take action by organizing people to come together for change.

I hope in my work that I can connect with others in new, thoughtful ways, to build new connections and open up intelligent ways to move in the world. I see art as a kind of elixir or energy force that helps make change possible because it works through the senses and outside rigid systems.

WNG: How did you get interested in art? I wonder how you were able to combat the negative opinions associated with pursuing a career in art. I know many youths who would love to study art as a major, but outside factors often affect their decision.

JJ: I do not remember a time in my life when I was not interested in art and making things. Art has always had a place in my life. Looking back, I understand now it is not really a decision I chose but a vocation that is part of who I am. My practice really developed in high school, I worked a lot on drawing when my dad was struggling with an illness. I spent a lot of time at home working on art while spending time with him. When I went to college I began very practically on a pre-law track, and then took art and art history as electives – I loved the classes, then just never turned back and worked for my BFA.

It was hard for me growing up in a rural farming community where there was not access to the arts. The people in my life just did not understand that world or how to support me – it just did not make sense to them. They were so proud that I made it to college and were worried I was throwing away a huge opportunity to have a stable life. I will admit I did not always win against the negative opinions and gave up a few times but came back. When I was not working as an artist I was not in line with who I was. Yet, it was also hard to know where I belonged in the art world and to use my talents.

I think studying art is incredibly valuable and fulfilling. However, I encourage youth who want to take it on to work with mentors, and to build a supportive community. Art degrees are really what one makes of them. It can be easy to get by and not push the work. One needs to be self-driven, ambitious, have curiosity, and enjoy working independently.

WNG: What drives you as an artist? Are there any organizations you work with who are passionate about the same issues your work addresses?

JJ: I am in a constant search for understanding and constantly placing that search into form. I am driven to examine issues of inequality, power, and justice. Currently, I am working in North Lawndale to bring arts programming to the west side for the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. I love working on grassroots and community-level projects. I volunteer at West Town Bikes, support several women’s empowerment organizations, and am very involved in community art spaces like Spudnik Press.

WNG: What does “community” mean to you?

JJ: “We are tied together in the single garment of destiny, caught in an inescapable network of mutuality.” This is a quote by Martin Luther King, Jr. that influences my own views on community. I see community as a way of affirming that reality is made up of parts that form an interrelated whole; in other words, that humans are dependent upon each other. Community defines our relationships with one another and to the Earth. It is the courage to love and care for people as we love and care for our own families. It is a society based on justice, equal opportunity, and love.

WNG: In your work Start Together, which exhibited at the Chicago Artists Coalition in 2016, you talk about the fence as being an indicator between the rich and the poor throughout the city of Chicago. Can you expand on that?

JJ: I was thinking about value and how the city of Chicago cares for some communities differently than others communities. How does poverty happen and what systems sustain and support inequity? In Start Together, I created a labyrinth of orange plastic fencing, a material that litters empty west side lots. It seems to be draped everywhere. Though it is a material that one typically sees in other places as well, in Chicago it often lands in bulk on speculated land and outdoor spaces that are left behind and uncared for. Those who enter the labyrinth I created contend with the dizzying pattern and maneuver in a complicated space. The material holds clues about the way Chicago neighborhoods are valued along with how we feel valued in the city. It addresses complications of property in any neighborhood. It also highlights the underlying tensions from the changes or necessary changes not happening in a community.

WNG: Further, how does this observation make you feel about the future of Chicago, and even the U.S.?

JJ: I believe that together we must work for change, furiously.