Q+Art: Artist Janet Currier Captures the Unseen Labor of a Woman’s Love
Crammed sardine-style into a white cubby, Janet Currier’s pile of blobby sculptures capture the frailty of the human body as it copes with a restrictive identity. Working in paint, sculpture, and installation, the London-based artist explores an internal world filled with memories of motherhood, quiet anxiety, and the stresses of existing as a woman in an increasingly perilous world.
Pushback, Currier’s blobby installation from 2019, consists of 45 soft sculptures, hand stitched from fuzzy pink fabric and stuffed into a found shelving unit. Currier uses a fleshy pink color for much of her fiber work, carefully choosing slight variations of hue with plenty of brown undertones, instead of an artificial hot pink or trendy Millennial pink. Next to the cubby’s cold, clinical surface, Currier’s organic blobs look downright unnatural, conjuring images of an exhausted body in a sterile hospital. “The female and maternal body is never far away,” she writes in her artist statement. “Soft sculpture installations suggest flesh that is squashed and compressed … sometimes the shape of a body, or an imagined internal view is seen in the work. It is most often a body that is threatened or threatening, a body being probed or that is sick or leaking or somehow not quite able to contain itself.”
With this statement, Currier aligns herself with a long line of women who suffer in silence, either because of personal illness or because they act as perennial caretakers for the sick and healthy alike. Using patterns and repetition, Currier reminds us that women shoulder the brunt of unpaid domestic work, a form of labor that is largely unseen and criminally undervalued. Still, she finds meaning and purpose in her years as a caregiver. “It’s labour that is monotonous but somehow miraculous in its skill,” she notes, equating the labor of love to process-based art forms like stitching and sewing.
“It’s a kind of mesmeric performative action, like stitching,” she continues. “Sometimes enabling things to float up into consciousness, and at other times operating like an irritating and obsessive kind of self-soothing.” Currier suggests that in any labor of love—creative, human, or otherwise—we simultaneously find and lose ourselves in acts beyond our rational control.
In Today’s Q+Art Interview…
Janet Currier discusses reading as a form of artistic research, what it’s like to move through the world as a woman, and feeding the heart and soul through art and making.
Which books, art-related or otherwise, belong on every artist’s shelf?
Janet Currier: I think that reading can be a really important part of research, and a very fruitful way to find critical context as an artist. I read a lot, and I also listen to audiobooks for the books that I find more challenging to read off the page. I especially love fiction and poetry, and what I read definitely feeds directly into my work. My recommendation would be to read and listen to anything and everything that engages you and feeds your practice.
I guess if I was pressed for a list though, I’d have to start out with Griselda Pollock and Rosika Parker's Old Mistresses: Women Art and Ideology. It was hugely formative for me as a young artist and still holds its own on my bookshelf. When I was doing my MFA, I discovered Silvia Federici, and I find myself coming back to Caliban and the Witch over and over again. It gives a really interesting and accessible account of the way gender roles have been constructed in capitalism through a brutal and often violent process of curtailing women's power and autonomy.
At the other end of the spectrum, Virginia Woolf has been another important influence on my work, both in the way she invents a very different narrative structure and in what she says about the creative process. I think Mira Schor is excellent reading for painters. I love Maggie Nelson's The Argonaut and how it explores different ideas about motherhood and combines memoire with feminist and queer theory in a way that makes it relevant and accessible. At the moment I am enjoying reading Burnt Sugar by Avni Doshi, which chimes with my own experience as an artist daughter trying to look after her aging mother. I am sure it will turn up in my work in some form at some point.
What are you trying to express with your art?
JC: My work has always been anchored in exploring the things I am experiencing in life—like relationships, motherhood, or illness. On one hand it’s a place where I try to make sense of things that are happening to me, and on the other, a way of saying something about a wider, shared social and political context. I think that I am trying to express something about how it is to be in the world—how it is to be a woman, a mother, a daughter, and a sister. I want to explore the emotions of a situation. Things like anxiety, vulnerability, disgust and fear, but also love, reverence, and beauty. Often these things are non-verbal and conveyed by a surface or touch. I’d also want there to be humor in the work—I am not sure it is always there—but the funny perversity of human experience really interests me.
What do you wish you learned in art school but weren’t taught?
JC: In a way I think I really benefited from being more or less left on my own when I did my BA—it made me resilient and it helped me to find my own way in terms of my practice. In the studio at least, there wasn't a sense about what work should be like. I wish, however, that there'd been more encouragement to think about the process of making work and the process of practice.
If I were teaching BA students, I'd spend a lot of time getting them to reflect on how they work. If you feel confident about that, I think the rest follows. Of course, everyone has a different set of rituals and practices around making, but I think it would have helped me a lot to know that those feelings of shame, being lost and in a mess, are actually all part of my process and usually mean that I am making some headway. It would have been good to know that blocks and sticky bits perennially arise, and that I will push through to the other side of them.
What is the best advice you’ve ever received? What’s the worst?
JC: The best bit of advice I've ever received was from the artist Mark Lechey while I was at Goldsmiths. I was stuck and lost with my work and I'll never forget him telling me to just "Rinse it out." I took the "rinsing it out" to mean “just do,” and that there is a place for making at a pace in order to understand what you are doing. Do first and think later. Connected to this is the notion that what you are thinking about, what the work means or the concept in your work, is imminent. It’s in you, and therefore it will come out in the rinsing process. I felt like I had suddenly been given permission to make the work I needed to make and honestly, I haven't looked back. I am really grateful to Mark!
The worst thing anyone said to me was at 17 when I told an older friend of the family that I wanted to be an artist. They said, "Oh, that's a very competitive field." It was probably just a throwaway comment to them, but it was a dream shattering comment, and the feeling that I would never succeed at being an artist stayed with me for years. Since then, I've always tried to be really careful how I respond to young people when they talk to me about their hopes and dreams.
What's your biggest barrier to being an artist?
JC: I’m very lucky that my circumstances and age mean that economically and socially life is easier for me now. My son has grown up and I am able to afford more time to work in a studio, more and to make work.
I know that that is a really privileged position to be in. I'd like to say that my biggest barrier is still time. To some extent that's true, because it takes a very long time to make a piece of work that I feel is good enough, but actually, I can fritter away a lot of time doing anything else but making! So I think it's more about overcoming the feelings of self-doubt and prevarication, and getting on with it. It takes a lot of discipline, self-belief, focus, and hard graft. Perhaps you have to be a bit perverse to make art. It's a very strange thing to do in lots of ways.
What does success mean to you as an artist?
JC: Like most artists, I'd love to sell more work. Apart from practical needs, I think the material recognition of what I do as an artist is important. Continuously being undervalued and underpaid for what you do does not feel healthy. However, commercial success in that way is not the most important thing to me. Success is more about being able to find the time to make work, to show work regularly, collaborate with other artists and to have recognition from peers and institutions that I respect and admire.
What role does the artist have in society?
JC: One time, when I was having an existential crisis about being an artist, someone I love sent me a quote from a suffragette anthem: "Give us bread, but give us roses"— meaning that it’s not just our bellies, but our hearts and souls that need feeding. Art might be higher up the ladder of human need, but we all have a need to experience things of beauty or that make our spirit's soar to get through life. Art is one of the things that gives us this. Maybe more importantly, we need a safe space to take risks, and artists have an important role as innovators—pushing the limits and discovering new things.
Artists also create opportunities for us to explore how we feel about things that are happening to us. They have a role as critical thinkers and in positing a view of the world that is not always comfortable. They also let us know that what we are experiencing is shared. At a psychic level, I think that artists do the work of digesting things that are going on for us. I think in my own work, I am busy trying to make things that are unpalatable to me, more palatable, or to beautify things that are ugly and disturbing. It's a kind of coping mechanism, but it’s also very much about trying to share something of my struggles and experiences with other people.
If you had to pick one, would you rather be a historically significant or commercially successful artist? Why?
JC: It’s hard to pick one or the other especially without seeming like a very arrogant person! It's always amazing and wonderful to sell work. Apart from anything, it makes you feel that people value and like what you do, which is really important. Like everyone else, artists need to eat, live, and pay rent. Creative practitioners need to be paid and financially supported in our society much more than they are.
Commercial success is just one kind of success. I think it’s a real measure of success to be able to keep making and sharing work in this day and age, however one manages to finance it. I also think that it’s problematic for the art world to be so market-driven. Commercial success doesn’t necessarily mean that the work is significant or worthy and there are many, many committed artists who make work that is important and valuable that are not in the least bit commercially successful.
So, I think if I really had to choose, I would go with being historically significant especially if commercial success meant that I wasn’t able to have the creative freedom I want.
What’s your relationship with money?
JC: Honestly, I think it needs work! I find it really hard to ask for what I am worth when it comes to work. I find the whole issue of pricing work incredibly difficult and uncomfortable. On the other hand, I'm sorry to say that I am always drawn to the most expensive things in any shop and am terrible at managing my own funds. So it's all a bit of a pickle really for me really.
What are you working on that you’re excited about right now?
JC: I've been doing a lot of sewing and I am working on a series of pieces of embroidered cot sheets and flannels that incorporate scraps from old pyjamas worked in Sashiko stitch. They kind of take upcycling to a ridiculous level, but they also convey a sense of having been loved and washed and touched. They are very understated and slow pieces, but I'm really enjoying working on them.
What do you do to maintain your mental health?
JC: I used to run to maintain my mental health, but earlier this year I broke my foot and ankle very badly and I haven’t been able to get back to running yet. I had to spend 6 weeks in bed and I found it really difficult and depressing. As I’ve got older I discovered that I am kinesthetic at heart and that moving is crucial to my emotional and cognitive wellbeing. I often resolve work when I run and it gives my day much needed structure that helps me through working alone in the studio. I have replaced it with daily yoga practice which I love and also keeps me healthy. Still, I miss being outside, I miss running with my friend and I miss the endorphin rushes I get during the day after a run. I can’t wait to get back to it.
Is there a specific time you recall feeling marginalized by the art world?
JC: I found it quite difficult doing my MFA as a mature mother. There were lots of things I felt excluded from because they happened in the evenings, etc. when I felt I needed to be home with my son. Luckily, there were other parent part-timers oi the course who had the same struggles. I think there is a lot more space and consciousness about artist mothers and artist parents now than there was then. I have certainly felt that the art world is ageist—especially towards emerging/early career artists, but I try not to let it get to me and hope that the work speaks for itself and has relevance. There are certainly more older women role models to draw on these days and more women returning to their practice after their children have grown up—so I am in good company.
How does your geographical location affect your work and/or success?
JC: I think that where you are can affect your work a lot. Even if your work is not site-specific or made consciously in response to a particular place, location and setting somehow seeps into what you are making. I have a studio at home, and I do think that impacts the content of my work—which is mostly about the domestic world. Whenever I’ve worked somewhere else, the nature of my work has shifted slightly—that’s why residencies are so useful. It can be good for your work to go somewhere different with fresh eyes and be a stranger in the field.
I live and work in London, and it’s a place where it is easy to meet like-minded artists. The support network I have here has been crucial to my professional development, and it would be hard to leave or to maintain virtually from another location. It’s also a place where there are always hundreds of shows to see, so there is always something to inspire and challenge. But I think it’s also a difficult environment to make work in. It’s hard to maintain a practice here, so I can see the benefits of moving away to somewhere where space and living costs are cheaper. I also think that technology means that it’s much easier to share work and create opportunities wherever you are, so location now may have less impact on how successful you are.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity. All photos published with permission of the artist.
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