Jean Bartlett


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“Not Mother's Milk”

Tanya Lin Jaffe

“Broken Mother and Child”




Climbing under the surfaces of skin
An interview with artist Tanya Lin Jaffe
September 4, 2007
By Jean Bartlett, Managing Editor

At the time of this interview, artist Tanya Lin Jaffe’s x-ray photography exhibit “SUBCUTANEOUS: A Deeper Look” is on display at Pacifica’s Sanchez Concert Hall Gallery.  It is a dramatic display.  Nothing is matted.  Nothing is framed.  Instead, positive x-ray prints are clipped to black fabric, evoking a visual soundscape of Béla Bartók’s “Music For Strings, Percussion and Celesta.”

“X-rays punctuate our lives from airports to medical facilities,” said the artist.  “They reveal, heal and visibly poke, prod, poison and protect.  Using that, which is used on us for ‘our’ ‘greater good,’ I examine common and uncommon objects surrounding themes of love, family and death.”

Common and uncommon objects include: toys, mannequins, marbles, snow globes and doll heads.  Many of these ‘treasures’ are discarded objects that Jaffe’s friend, watercolorist John Andreas, mines from the muck of building sites in San Francisco.  “My friend John has an archeological passion for digging.  He and his friends sift through mounds of deep earth piled next to foundation work projects.  Often John will find artifacts dating back to the 1800s.  It’s a whole subculture and many of these items are subsequently auctioned on EBay.  But prior to sale, John loans me those items which catch my eye for further exploration.”

“Even my photography is very object and prop oriented,” said Jaffe.  “I’m always collecting things.  I just went to visit relatives in Seattle and returned with a huge suitcase full of props marked for x-ray.”

Jaffe, who also has two selected x-ray works juried into the ‘New Visions 2007, ProArts Gallery in Oakland,’ and who recently displayed photography work at San Francisco’s ‘Altered Barbie’ Exhibits, held concurrently at the Hayes Valley Gallery and the Market Street Gallery, came into her own as an artist in her early 20s.

“I was born in St. Louis, Missouri,” said Jaffe.  “Except for my mother, who is a published, produced playwright, artists did not run in my family.  It wasn’t until I moved to New York in my early twenties that art and I found each other.”

“I came upon a holographic exhibit and I was angered and disgusted by the banality and the sort of trickery of it all.  It was like: ‘Look Ma, I can make a hologram.’  I saw it as having little or no artistic merit.  I went to my studio and I created a hologram out of children’s plastic magnetic letters.  It said: ‘BAA!’  It was my reaction to the absurdity of the level the medium was being utilized.”

Originally Jaffe planned to be an engineer.  “I had my two year degree in Laser and Fiber Optics Technology and I was taking every engineering required math and science class I could to transfer into engineering in the senior college.  I did transfer but by the end of my first semester I realized how much art meant to me.”  Jaffe went on to receive her BA in Studio Art Holography.  “I absolutely fell in love with the medium.”

Holography is a very expensive, technically challenging medium.  Hardware tools of the trade include at least: lasers, lenses, mirrors and isolation tables.  Artistic tools include: line, form, color, texture, shape and vision.  It is not exactly a field bursting with creative mentors; nevertheless Jaffe did a fellowship with the Museum of Holography in New York City, (closed March 1992, holdings acquired January of 1993 the MIT Museum, Cambridge, MA,) and interned with several holographic artists.

The artist and holography became steadfast friends beginning in the mid 80s.  Photography as an art form came along much later.  By this time, Jaffe had moved to California.

“I met my husband in New York,” said Jaffe.  “We lived there for fifteen years.  I had a rent stabilized apartment and a cabin in the woods; but in mid life my husband wanted to go to law school.  If we can’t pursue what makes us happy, what’s the point?  He applied for law school at Georgetown and got in, but by that point we were ready to make the break from the hustle and bustle of the East Coast, and the West Coast is where we wanted to live.  He got into the University of Washington which brought us to Seattle.  We discovered Pacifica when he was a summer associate at the law firm that hired him in San Francisco.  Once we came to Pacifica, we knew it was for us.  It’s real people, a combination of blue collar and artists.  It is so close to San Francisco and yet a world away.  There is no place I know like it.”

“I was introduced to photography as a means to an end.  There was a holographic project I was working on that required photography and I realized I loved photography.  My first photography teacher was Richard Lohmann at the College of San Mateo.  His expertise and technical knowledge is unparalleled.  He gave me the tools I needed.  Once I found my vision, I was very fortunate to be mentored by Arthur Takayama.  He’s the head of the photography department at Skyline College.”

Subsequently Jaffe’s photography has won many awards, is prized by collectors and her solo exhibit entitled: “In Search Of Fertility” recently showcased at the Merced Multicultural Arts Center.

Jaffe came into x-ray photography as the result of a trip to the hospital emergency room.  “Some years back I ended up in an emergency room with horrific neck pain and was given some very good advice: go to a chiropractor.  I landed at Dr. Thomas’s office in Pacifica and he helped me tremendously.”

“Now Dr. Thomas has this x-ray machine,” Jaffe laughed. “I told him as an artist I really wanted to explore what the x-ray had to offer.  He thought it over for a while, quite a while, and then eventually allowed me a few test shots.  The results were both successful and stunning.”  Now Dr. Thomas allows Jaffe to use his x-ray machine, one day a week, early in the morning.

“This work is an evolution in my photography work, distilling imagery down even further than I did before.  With these positive x-ray prints it is never a question of pretty pictures.  The images are grainy and high contrast which is the nature of the x-ray film I am using.  However my point is not to make a pretty picture but to make the viewer gaze into their own looking glass through viewing the pictures.”

Some of the works in the artist’s Pacifica exhibit include: “Not Mother’s Milk,” a baby bottle with silk metallic organza; “Floating Egg,” a hen’s egg with fabric around it giving it a very amorphous feeling; “Wedding Globe,” a snow globe music box which brings to mind the joy of a wedding and the unnerving sensation of a ticking time bomb; and “Barbie’s Hair,” a neck through head representative of the doll icon seemingly lit by a halo of smoke and flames.  Of the twenty-one images displayed in the Gallery, five were created from objects found by John Andreas. (Note as of this writing “Not Mother’s Milk” was selected by SFMOMA director Neal Benezra for exhibit in “The Art Of Digital Show,” an international exhibition of digital art on display October 6 through November 11, 2007 at the San Diego Lyceum Theatre Gallery. Of the 2,796 entries received from 40 countries, Jaffe’s work was one of 104 pieces chosen.)

Two of the artist’s x-ray photographs are closer to her work as a photographer.  One is “Baby Wish,” a baby doll with a crown that seemingly is in a sea of wishbones and other symbolic metaphoric objects.  The other is called “Dead Eggs.”  This piece is a little gruesome.  Jaffe has access to food for snakes and that food would be baby dead chicks.  In this x-ray photograph, the chicks are arranged in a symmetrical circular pattern with eggs and wishbones.  The artist readily admits that “Dead Eggs” is even a bit hard for her to look at.

“I strive to have context in my work.  The objects are laden with thematic content.  I do sometimes skate very close to cliché but the intent is to give a new twist on it.  To take that cliché and stand it on its head.”

Jaffe’s influences are as original and complex as her art work.  Dadaism is one influence.  This was a cultural movement, approximately 1916-1920, which stood against what was accepted in the academia and urbane circles as art.  The artists of this movement believed that only a society whose culture and philosophy were totally corrupt could have produced WWI.  Thus, where ‘accepted’ art might be bound by logic, Dadaism embraced chaos as a means to find a new reality.

American composer John Cage has influenced Jaffe.  Cage was a pioneer in the field of ‘chance’ music.  His music is based on rhythm rather than harmony.  One of his most famous pieces is a real audience challenger.  That composition, entitled 4’33’’, travels the length of three movements without a single note being played.  Photographer Adam Fuss, known for his photography without the use of a camera (some of his images are created by putting things on top of photosensitive paper and exposing the arrangement to light) – is also a Jaffe influence.  Finally, though Jaffe is shocked by the extremes and even evil of photographer Joel-Peter Witkin’s visuals; the work, not the man, serves as an influence: “You just can’t stop looking at it.”

All that being stated, it is photographer Julia Margaret Cameron whom Jaffe identifies as a ‘kindred spirit.’  Cameron came to photography in her middle years and she created, among other photographs, portraits of the famous.  These photographs were unusually intimate in their ability to see not only the face of the subject, but the soul beneath the skin – and even now these portraits serve as inspiration mined from the mist of our past.

“I do not see myself as a photographer or an x-ray artist,” said Jaffe.  “I see myself as an artist who uses various mediums to convey a message.  What is so exciting for me as an artist is the unpredictability.  I can’t see through things.  As a photographer, what I see is what I get.  In x-ray photography what I see is never what I get.  It’s a process of discovery for me.  Even if I know what the internal structure is; I’m never sure how the materials will respond to the x-ray light.  As I’ve gotten more experienced I can predict exposure better.  But there are some things in the ‘suitcase’ that are a complete mystery.”

“My art is like an offering.  I offer it to people.  I have my intentions but because of the dreaminess of some of the images, I’m comfortable with people finding what they discover.  If a viewer is interested in my intention, that is certainly quite wonderful.  But if they find an unintended consequence, that is best of all.”

Enter the world as viewed by Jaffe at: http://www.tanyalinjaffe.com/  (Jaffe's x-ray photos displayed without captions are: “Mannequin Head” and “Dead Eggs.”)