Jesse Houlding

Artist, San Francisco // July 2012
I was interested in the moment when the magnetic field becomes visible and then is removed and the iron slides down the sheet of paper. It was kind of like a magic trick but you were left with this great “trace” – a bunch of evidence that something happened even if you weren’t there to see it.

I’ll admit it— Jesse’s work initially made me nervous. With titles like “The Telluric Currents” I worried I’d need to brush up on my scant knowledge of geophysics before our studio visit and that if I didn’t, I’d be completely lost. In reading about his work, I kept coming across the words kinetic, magnetism, and machines and all I could think was, Uh-oh…this is gonna be a tough one. I’ve never exactly been an ace in the field of science, so despite doing research I still felt a rising panic on our way to his Dogpatch studio. Mostly, I was concerned that Jesse would embark on lengthy explanations full of abstruse language and I’d be left totally dumbfounded.

As soon as I shook Jesse’s hand all my worry dissipated. He pretty much radiates a regular guy vibe; down-to-earth, cheerful, and eager to engage with questions about his work, he carries no pretense. When we talked about “The Magnetic Drawing Machines”— his series of kinetic sculptures in which magnets “draw” on paper by pulling iron filings across it— he kept his language simple and accessible. The mechanics of the sculptures are actually quite straightforward and in person they present an unfussy but mesmerizing visual experience. The same is true of Jesse’s “Truck Drawings” which are created in the back of his pickup truck using a 16-pound heavy metal shot put ball. Essentially, as Jesse drives the ball rolls around a piece of carbon paper in the truck bed and makes a map of the journey.

Jesse’s work is rigorous but whimsical; led by his curiosity and guided by the principles of the scientific method, he brings it to life with a tinkerer’s dexterous touch. He’s aware that his work is potentially challenging to viewers and he also knows sometimes people get stuck on the technical aspect of it. But his aim is create wonder around both what is readily visible and also what is unseen— he wants the marvel of mechanics to hint at the natural phenomena at play, thereby engaging his viewer in newfound perceptions.

What mediums do you work with? How would you describe your subject matter? What themes seem to occur/reoccur in your work?
I have been working with natural phenomena such as light, magnetism, friction and gravity and time as my primary medium. I try to think about ways to highlight either some property of the phenomena or our perception of them. For example, I set the challenge for myself to make a sculpture using light— to create a perception of light as a three-dimensional object. That project took several forms, from making videos of the “Cone of the Known” to cyanotypes, and then in it’s most ambitious form the installation piece I call “The Telluric Currents” which is lights rotating on motorized arms creating this repeating patterns of light projecting on a plastic screen.

I don’t feel bound to any particular medium though I primarily make sculpture. Even the two-dimensional pieces such as the “Truck Drawings” are made using this fairly elaborate process. I think it’s obvious that I was trained as a printmaker; and while I don’t actually make prints, my approach is very printmakerly, if that’s a word. I love to create these systems and then see what happens when I remove myself, which I think is a very printmaker-like approach. There is this magic that happens when you pull a print on the press, the transformation of the plate to the paper is really remarkable to me and I try to bring that experience to all my work.

Some of the main themes I am interested other than phenomenology is thinking about our psychological states; how we form beliefs about how the world works and how that guides our understanding of the world. I did a year as a Fellow with the American Psychoanalytic Society, which was very interesting and was introduced to a lot of new theories which I found really stimulating. I have been thinking a lot about how repetition operates in an artistic practice; from thinking about repetition as a self soothing gesture to the ways a repeated mark accumulates and takes on a new meaning by the sheer magnitude of the mark making. I think this is in part why I am drawn to the kinetic work, I like the hypnotic quality of the movement but at the same time am interested in the way it changes over time.

My guiding intention for all my work is to look at the forces that make our world and explore them by making the invisible visible. Most importantly, I want to bring forth the essence more than demonstrate the mechanics.

How did your sculptural series “The Magnetic Drawing Machines” initially come about?
I had been working with iron and magnets in graduate school at San Francisco State University, creating these performance-drawing situations where I would hold a sheet of shaped magnet behind a sheet of paper and then pour iron over the paper that would hold the magnet in place. Then I would remove the magnet and there would be a ghost of the shape and the performance would be over. I was interested in the moment when the magnetic field becomes visible and then is removed and the iron slides down the sheet of paper. It was kind of like a magic trick but you were left with this great “trace” – a bunch of evidence that something happened even if you weren’t there to see it. I shelved that work for a long time because it just wasn’t very approachable, or maybe the situation was too contrived. I was focusing on “The Telluric Currents” project and had made these mechanisms for rotating lights and my friend suggested mechanizing the magnets. That idea sparked the last few years of my studio practice and I have been experimenting and improving those sculptures ever since.

Do you find that people have a hard time grasping the nature of your work? And is that what prompted the use of video documentation?
There are two major challenges in my work; the first is that when dealing with phenomena it is very hard to document. A lot of it relies on the way your eye works and a camera is obviously very different. The second is that working with phenomena invites an “Exploratorium” comparison, which I am very wary of. I am not trying to belittle the Exploratorium genre, but I do want to differentiate my intentions – I think the primary job of an Exploratorium is to educate and is therefore didactic whereas I am trying to ask questions and am not seeking to provide answers. So it is a little challenging when the work is abstract and/or kinetic and it makes the viewer want to try and figure out how it operates as a mechanism and not necessarily go deeper into why I would make what I make. That may be more of a worry than an actual problem.

The video documentation has two purposes; the first is that for the installation work such as “The Telluric Currents” it’s the only way people are going to see it unless they came to the show. The other is that because my work is often kinetic, video is the only way to really show what is happening over time. It has been interesting to me that the videos are kind of taking on a life of their own. I don’t really enjoy trying to make the videos but it is important to document the work, and people seem to be responding to them in a way that I didn’t intend so that has been good/curious.

What does having a physical space to make art in mean for your process, and how do you make your space work for you?
Having a physical space is very important to me. I really can’t think without my studio. I like to spread out and our new studio which we moved into under a year ago really allows me to do that, the high ceilings give me so much brainspace it’s really wonderful. I tend to work iteratively, building a piece as a test, then seeing how it can be improved, and then rebuilding and rebuilding, each iteration refining some aspect of the previous model. Having a large space allows me to keep several iterations around so that I can reference the older piece.

The other really important thing is having studio mates to get inspired by. Sharing our space is not just about splitting the bills, I can come in and see what everyone else is working on and get inspired by their energy and see how their work is progressing.

When you are in need of inspiration are there particular things you read, listen to or look at to fuel your work?
I read (or more accurately listen) to a lot of books about science, lately on neuroscience and human behavior but also a fair amount of fiction. I have a couple of podcasts that I rely on in the studio (WFT, RadioLab, Planet Money, and EconTalk) and I probably do 60/40 non-fiction to fiction. I think what I read affects my work in really oblique ways; giving me ideas about how to think about things rather than direct inspiration. But I keep coming across books that talk about properties of water that are inspiring me to make a piece exploring water – so I think that will actually be a first for me where I get an idea for a piece from reading. I’m just beginning this work, making water vortices and looking at things like gravity, volume, etc and the “shapes” of water.

What risks have you taken in your work, and what has been at stake?
I guess career-wise it has been ‘risky’ to be an installation artist and to make kinetic sculpture. Right after graduate school I showed a lot but it is very costly to produce the large-scale installations I was interested in and I really struggled with how to make a sustainable art practice. Also by focusing on these ephemeral phenomena the work itself was somewhat ephemeral. So I have really struggled with how to make work that is conceptually rigorous and satisfying to me as I explore these ideas but also make something that people can relate to as physical objects. I think I have been striking a good balance lately and it has been very rewarding because the audience can engage in a way that I didn’t anticipate previously.

At stake has been whether I can sustain myself as an artist and whether or not I can continue to engage with an audience. I’ve needed to figure out ways to adapt so that my work is approachable without being didactic.

Is there something you are currently working on, or are excited about starting that you can tell us about?
I am working on a new “Truck Drawing” series that uses the entire bed of my truck to do the drawing. I quickly found I needed to make a liner that sits inside the bed to protect the walls of the truck from the shot put ball. The larger distance creates a lot of energy for the shot put so I am working on understanding the physics of the piece, which is always the most exciting part for me.

Do you see your work as relating to any current movement or direction in visual art or culture? Which other artists might your work be in conversation with?
I am definitely inspired by the conceptual drawings of Tom Marioni. There is a playful element to his work that I really relate to, and he seems to have found a way to get to the essence of his ideas, which is something I aspire to. Of course I have been heavily influenced by both Robert Irwin and James Turrell, but local contemporaries that I relate to in my “area” are Randy Colosky for both his deep investigations into material and ideas of repetition and probably Chris Fraser for the way he uses light as a primary element.

How do you navigate the art world?
I got some good advice from Mike Arcega once that has really stuck with me; he said that an art career isn’t a sprint, or even a marathon – it’s an ultra-marathon. (We had both just finished reading Born to Run about long distance running, so it was a good analogy). The question is: how do you find a way to keep making work in 5, 10, 15, 20 years? I think I just keep my head down and work in the studio and as opportunities arise I am ready for them. It’s tough because there is pressure to do a fair amount of self-promoting, which is contrary to my nature, as well as takes time away from the studio. We are all very lucky here in the Bay Area because it is a very supportive environment. I think it helps us thrive as artists in a way that I am not sure exists in other parts of the country/world. So I am grateful to be a part of this community, and while some people complain that it is small and maybe insular, I think it is inspiring and will take small and supportive over big and competitive any day.

Do you have a day job? What is it? What does it mean to you?
I recently quit my corporate day job that I held for 12 years and started working at Kala Art Institute in Berkeley as the Print Shop Manager. I am loving my new life! I get to work with all these amazing artists and have a lot more time for my studio practice. The corporate gig was good, I was able to work from home which was great and I was able to work all through grad school so I didn’t have to go into any debt which was nice. But I realized that I was spending all this time doing something that didn’t matter to me so I quit and am now involved in an art community that I really respect and enjoy. Between Kala, my studio and being on the board at The LAB gallery I can say I am really living my dream!

I am also very fortunate to have a supportive spouse who doesn’t mind the fact that I make a small fraction of my previous salary and can support us with her law career. I haven’t really had to make many sacrifices for my practice in the ways I see so many of my friends doing so I recognize that I am incredibly lucky in this regard. I honestly don’t know what I would do if I had to choose what to keep in my life and what I would have to give up if money were the guiding principle.

Do you have a motto?
My motto is to never believe my eyes.

What has been your biggest disappointment and greatest joy thus far in life?
I don’t really have any disappointments; I see whatever failures or struggles I may have had as a way to learn about myself so I don’t really see my life in those terms. Even when I think “Oh, I should have done X earlier” I realize that I wasn’t ready to do whatever it was then, and see my life as a progression without a final, knowable goal.

As for joys, I think my decision to quit my corporate job and really invest in the art community here has been really rewarding, and if it’s not too Pollyanna-ish to say, my life is pretty joyful all the time – I get to surf, climb, travel, make whatever I want and engage with really smart people, if that’s not too irritating to say….

Are you involved in any upcoming shows or events? Where and when?
I am very pleased to be a part of the inaugural show of a new gallery, called Interface Gallery, which Suzanne L’Heureux is starting in Oakland in September.

Also in September I’ll be giving a LASER talk.

And I am working on an upcoming project with K. Imperial Fine Art so keep an eye on their blog.
To see more of Jesse’s work: