Notes from Montalvo. Judy Darragh: FOIL
Published in Art Practical.
A series developed in collaboration with Lucas Artists Residency Program at Montalvo Arts Center.
Despite relinquishing her crown as the “Queen of Kitsch” in 2002, New Zealand artist Judy Darragh has not deviated from her whimsical recycling of inexpensive objects. Transitioning toward a minimalist mindset, Darragh has replaced her use of plastic penises and faux fur with manipulated stationery and aluminum foil. Since the 1980s, Darragh has produced works that challenge the act of conspicuous consumerism. Uninterested in participating in the commercial aspects of the arts industry, Darragh purposely creates works that others can easily replicate with everyday objects. Her most recent work—specific to the place and time it’s created—continues this disruption, and dishevels the tradition of art collecting and archiving.
In 2015, after being nominated by fellow New Zealand artist Lisa Reihana, Darragh was awarded a three-month fellowship at The Sally and Don Lucas Artist Residency Program at Montalvo Arts Center in Saratoga, California, to be used within three years. The following fall, Darragh spent a month at Montalvo in order to observe how the residency operates, understand more about the fellowship expectations, and see what previous artists created during their stay. Now in her third stay at Montalvo, where I had the opportunity to meet with her in her studio, Darragh is working on FOIL, a temporary installation situated within a garden on the residency’s grounds.
Each morning, Darragh places the aluminum foil sculptures she made the previous day unsystematically in the ground. To create each sculpture, Darragh crumples a section of aluminum foil until a satisfactory number of reflective facets are achieved, and then attaches the dull end of a wooden kebab skewer to the metallic form to establish a stand. Individually, the foil sculptures resemble psychedelic lollipops, or an elementary school science fair project in the making. The contours and forms of the malleable, reflective material are a visible documentation of the labor involved in configuring the sculptural balls. The entire process of creation is evident in the installation’s final product. When clustered by the hundreds, the installation is suggestive of a used emergency thermal blanket, or an otherworldly river. Darragh will continue to add aluminum foil sculptures to the installation until October 18th, and FOIL will be on display in the garden until it naturally deteriorates from wildlife and weather.
Although the installation highlights the harmful effects caused by the materials involved with the consumer convenience industry, it likewise contributes to the issue. Aluminum foil’s unnatural existence in the environment can leave a negative impact on its immediate surroundings and wildlife. Left to naturally decompose, the recyclable material can take between 200-500 years to breakdown depending on environmental conditions like sunlight, moisture, and oxygen. Perhaps Darragh has not completely left kitsch behind, as this can be considered questionable in taste to any environmentalist.
Additionally, the use of aluminum foil and wooden kabob skewers in FOIL rebels against the tradition of selecting materials to create lasting artworks. Incorporating non-archival materials in artwork is problematic for collectors and institutions, as it is difficult to maintain the quality of the work over time. Darragh’s use of relatively cheap materials elevates the work’s visual grandeur, but undermines the work’s permanence. “I want to slip under the conversation about art being there forever,” said Darragh. “My work is about the belief in the unknown, and how that translates in art.”
FOIL continues in the artistic direction of Limbo (2015), a piece composed of seven large, metallic shapes accented with fluorescent paint and acrylic rhinestones. This installation, commissioned by Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki, hangs from the kauri tree canopy in the gallery’s North Atrium. The metallic forms make light dance around the space, similar to a disco ball, while the colorful forms themselves look like hallucinatory meteors.
An understanding and appreciation of the domestic world is often translated into Darragh’s work through her selection of materials. By utilizing aluminum foil and bamboo skewers, two materials readily available at a supermarket, Darragh pays homage to the kitchen—which has traditionally been considered to be the woman’s realm. “These aluminum foil sculptures are made from the sheet of tinfoil you screw up after you’ve cooked your lasagna,” said Darragh. “Tinfoil has a reference to domestic life, cooking, and food—especially in the Pacific island culture in New Zealand. If there’s food out, it’s always covered in tinfoil, so meals are like an installation in themselves!”
Darragh was especially curious to participate in the residency at Montalvo to experience how the “traditional male artist” has been societally allowed to work in a studio separate from the home. As both an artist and a mother, Darragh had to become more efficient with the limited time she could dedicate to art-making. “As a female artist, there often have to be different ways of working,” said Darragh. “We traditionally do a lot of caring—I’ve been caring for my son, and now I’m caring for my mother.” Previously, Darragh was involved with the artist initiatives Teststrip and Cuckoo, and most recently COOKs, where artists who are also mothers gather for a catered meal once a year for networking and discussion.
Rather than relying on sales of her artwork to make a living, Darragh focuses on teaching to allow her the freedom to contradict the art market. Additionally, Darragh makes work for other artists and trades work with them to devalue the art market. “Art sales are not an interesting measure of how successful an artist is,” said Darragh. “In this scenario, the economy is determining the outcome and culture.”
The idea for FOIL stems from the Gaia hypothesis formulated by chemist James Lovelock in the 1970s. While viewing satellite images of the earth, Lovelock observed a layer of ozone moving around the planet and proposed the idea of Earth as a superorganism. Scientists were slow to accept his theory, however acceptance about the Earth as a self-organizing system has grown since the early 1990s. “Lovelock was ahead of his time,” said Darragh. “I think the idea of the earth being alive is a really important one, and one that prompts action—specifically thinking about the earth as an overheated planet, and how we need to cool it down.”
To continue this conversation, Darragh had the idea to create a blanket of foil that personifies the surface of the earth in hopes to hinder climate change. However, in this attempt, the aluminum foil reflects the sunlight to protect the earth while simultaneously heating it up—essentially making the situation worse. “It’s never going to work, it’s a failed attempt,” said Darragh. “This project is about being foiled.” More than a political pun, Darragh’s work provides a nonjudgmental platform to brainstorm unconventional solutions. “I’m really interested in failure, particularly in art, because as artists, we fail all the time,” explains Darragh. “Throughout my teaching I have always encouraged students to embrace failure because that’s how we learn and grow. Through failure we have these amazing moments that open up ideas.”
A strong parallel between science and fiction in relation to art is ever-present in Darragh’s work. Science is subject to discovery, and is about believing in things that are not visible to the human eye. Art operates similarly because viewers need to believe in the concept of an artwork in order for the work to affect them. Throughout her career, Darragh has increased her utilization of this parallel, and puts it to use in space by producing large-scale installations that explore her interest in what lies between fact and fiction, and high- and low- culture—with an element of humor. FOIL is a reminder of humans’ inherent interest in understanding the inner workings of the world, and our relationship within a larger ecosystem. Regardless of if we know the “right” answer or not, Darragh presents us with the opportunity to try and—purposely or not—possibly fail.