Visiting Artist Lecture: Janine Antoni

Madison Rupp
ARTH 3539
Visiting Artist Lecture Review

Janine Antoni

In March, the CU Boulder Visiting Artist Program was lucky enough to host multimedia artist Janine Antoni, and in many people’s opinions, it was the best lecture yet.  Antoni got her BA from Sarah Lawrence College, her MFA from the Rhode Island School of design, and has been honored with both Guggenheim and MacArthur Fellowships.  While her talent is hugely obvious in her work, one would never guess this from her humble, easy-going presence.  She is immediately likeable, but intriguing at the same time.  Antoni primarily works in sculpture and performance, using her whole body as a tool and using humanity as her subject matter.  Materiality is hugely important in her work; Antoni uses materials that speak directly to the content of her piece.  She is primarily interested in the relationship between body and object, and to quote the artist herself, is “obsessed with communication.”  Many of her works also deal with the human condition and its everyday functions, making them widely relatable and easily understood.

Antoni started her lecture with the piece that she feels started her post-art school career, done in 1989 and entitled Wean.  It is largely considered her first major breakthrough.  Wean consists of a line of plaster imprints, molded from Antoni’s breast, her nipple, a store-bought nipple from a baby bottle, and the packaging of a baby bottle.  The piece comments on the increasing separation between mother and child, both physical and emotional, that is so common in modern life.  Babies begin life completely relying on their mother and slowly gain independence by moving away from their mother’s nurturing care.  Antoni represents this transition in a physical way, moving from breast to bottle.  It is important that the forms are imprints because the negative space is symbolic of the lack of human connection.  The piece also talks about how each person understands his or her own body, which we each become aware of in relation to our mother’s body, and then in relation to others in society.  Wean is a highly personal piece for Antoni, she conceived of it based off of her distant relationship with her mother.  Here, one can see the artist’s early talent for communicating complex ideas with simple gestures, and how her work questions the relationship between humans in general and between the human body and objects.

One of her best-known works is Lick and Lather.  In this 1993 work, Antoni created classical busts of herself using either chocolate or soap, which she would then eat or use to wash herself.  The actions of eating and washing are inherently gentle and nurturing, but in doing so Antoni erases the image of herself into something indistinguishable and unrecognizable.  This piece talks about creating self-image, and how we all have one but are increasingly detached from, and critical of, this image.  One can see how materiality is critical in this piece. I found this piece to be especially impressive because of the extreme physicality involved in each step.  There is an uncomfortable balance between self-love and self-hatred, exemplified in the process of creation and destruction.   Here, Antoni uses her body as both the initial inspiration for, and the physical end of her own work.
Another well-known work by Antoni is Loving Care, done in 1992.  In this performance, Antoni soaked her hair in Loving Care brand hair dye, and then got on her hands and knees to mop the gallery floor.  Viewers would have to move to get out of the way, eventually being pushed out of the gallery space altogether.  This piece talks about the artist’s relationship to their work.  Antoni’s body is the tool for creating the work and her mind is the ultimate power behind the work; but Antoni work also changes her, which is communicated through the use of hair dye (which of course changes her hair color).  Loving Care also talks about the relationship between artist and audience.  In order for the artist to complete her process, the audience members had to take a step back and remove themselves.  The audience was still engaged in the work, but they were also distanced from it, which I understood to communicate the gap between the artist’s intended meaning of the work and the audience’s perception of the work.  Lastly, Antoni explained that the piece is a reference to Abstract Expressionism because of how the paint is applied in such a directly physical way, hearkening back to Jackson Pollock’s violent drips or Franz Kline’s Anthropomorphites.
Janine Antoni’s lecture gave amazing insight into a creative genius.  Learning about her in other classes as well as reading about her in different art publications, I knew that her lecture would be interesting.  But it was much more than that.  Antoni revealed so much about her work to the audience, including parts that were extremely personal.  What I really appreciated was getting to hear about what inspires her, and how her process unfolds to make her inspirations come true.  I also appreciate how she uses humor and lightheartedness to talk about potentially serious issues.  Rather than trying to attack something in her art, Antoni makes easygoing observations and allows the viewer to make up his or her mind.  It makes sense, seeing that her work focuses on communication, that she can so clearly deliver a complex idea through a beautiful work.  I will definitely make it a point to see more of Janine Antoni’s works, and I predict that she will be continuously successful throughout her career.

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