Daniel Herleth: In your exhibition from 2017 at the space I co-organised, Oracle—as in previous exhibitions of yours—you showed empty box sculptures, and a first reaction might be an impression of refusal, a somehow standoffish gesture… Although you aren’t trying to disappoint your audience, are you?
Samuel Jeffery: I would have never wished for anything to seem intended to disappoint, and of course it wasn’t—although I am unable to guarantee not having done so.
DH [laughs]: I was only trying to make you say a bit more about these works, because, as a visitor, one encounters these boxes without much in the way of mediation—you don’t include text, titles or a press release. A box is an object very much associated with containing something, so presenting boxes without content seems to highlight a sense of emptiness. Of course that doesn’t mean it needs to be disappointing, an experience of emptiness can be very fulfilling, no?
SJ: Absolutely. In so far as they are susceptible to peripheral cues, the boxes are in fact quite vulnerable things, even if they do appear to present themselves as austere or standoffish to use your phrase. Along with a shortage of good ideas, this may explain my initial aversion to texts, titles, etc., which now leads me to conclude that this interview might be totally counterproductive… But yes, there is of course an absence at the works’ very centre, and along with that the blatant implication for attention to be drawn to what might have been omitted or, perhaps more optimistically, what is yet to come: they don’t refuse or omit content any more than they ostensibly await it.
I suppose I am not interested in the prospect of the sculptures being in service of any particular idea(s) or motives, which isn’t to say that there aren’t any… A consequence made inevitable by my working on them over long periods and repeatedly re-showing them, is that an initial impetus gets neglected, ideas are forgotten, or other thoughts accumulate whilst the objects, in one way or another, persist. Perhaps somewhere in these works is an articulation of that discordance between the slow, persistent state of objects up against the volatility of thinking?
DH: I like the idea that thoughts pass through and leave again, while the boxes are still there, as you continue to paint new layers of primer on them… Another thing to point out here is the appearance of the boxes themselves: while they look unassuming from afar, upon closer inspection they reveal their delicate, handmade character.
SJ: Yes, in fact they are quite crudely put together. The flatness of the primer I use to paint them conceals a lot of surface detail and so, as you said, they require close inspection in order for certain things to reveal themselves. The painted stripes that loop around their exterior are built up over long periods, painted repeatedly to create a relief. Depending on the liquidity of the primer, the creation of a relief may require up to forty layers or more. So over time, during the re-painting (or, rather, re-priming) of the stripes, various lumps and irregularities occur, as bits and stuff like dust, hair and dried primer become trapped within the surface. Sometimes I add things deliberately. I do this re-priming partly in an attempt to get some sort of duration into the work; things happen that could only ever be the consequence of having spent a lot of time with them. I would like to point out the fact that these sculptures are made entirely out of plastic, which is of course evolved from crude oil, a prehistoric substance. I like to think of them in their various relations to time.
DH: That’s funny, the works are then time traps to a certain extent, as is fossil fuel… So there is a tension between “cold,” technological aspects and the “warm” and handmade in the works. Another very apparent aspect of these works is that you usually present them on plinths that feel a bit too large for the boxes, or at least large enough to be overtly present. Which introduces another aspect of reflexivity: reflexivity of being presented in an exhibition space. It feels as if the works enforce a push and pull dynamic between pointing outwards and inviting in.
SJ: Push and pull. Inwards / outwards. Micro / macro. These kinds of dualisms are seemingly prevalent, although, I wonder if they aren’t a hinderance, redundant even: they tend to operate on the most rudimentary level and exclude nuance. They are red herrings. Instances of failings in semiotic language. For the invite for the Oracle show I chose to use an image of a red dot and green dot side by side: on / off, port / starboard, go / stop. It had the simultaneous effect of an announcement and a call to make a choice.
As regards the plinths, they offer a kind of formal pomp if you will. A presentational guise. As exhibition furniture, plinths enact a kind of dumbing amplification of what the gallery space already purports—there is an implicit over-egging at play, and in turn a sort of self-neutering that takes place—which might be a bit like when someone tries to explain to you why a joke is funny. The plinths also begin to lampoon the sculptures themselves, by way of mirroring them (box on box), which puts in to question the nature of their role as supports.
Overall, plinths are fallible things, both blatant and indeterminate. Whilst they maintain an auxiliary role, they remain very much an aspect of the work as a whole. They urge the sculptures to be sculptures, whilst inevitably becoming sculpture themselves. This could all raise questions about where exactly the work or its content might be located. A proposition that, with regards to the box sculptures, could be taken both allegorically as well as quite literally.
DH: There is a sense of withdrawal in these works, as is in other works of yours. I am thinking of your mirror pieces. They are small, round, conventional, off-the-shelf mirrors that are inconspicuous. They too trigger this question of “where is the work”? Is it this that interests you in the gesture of exhibiting such mirrors, or are you inviting viewers to really look at the things themselves? Albeit whilst looking at themselves…
SJ: I think it’s both at the same time, much like the allegory / literal conundrum: both wave and particle.
With some exceptions the mirror works are, as you say, off-the-shelf, shop bought: some are antique, some mere cheap decor. In part, I started showing them when I felt that I wanted to get some kind of semblance of culture into my work, as I was experiencing some discomfort with the idea that the box sculptures, which preceded the mirrors, might be read as an exercise in mere formalism…
DH: … I get that you wanted to avoid a formalist reading of the boxes (which I don’t think is totally necessary) but I’m not sure what it is exactly that you mean by “culture” here?
SJ: Well, when exhibited, the mirrors (which are totally miscellaneous), are arranged in a particular way. They are hung plainly in a straight row, so that such things as character or stylistic difference become accentuated. The specificity of each mirror then, along with its respective history—British Regency, Art Deco, IKEA, and so on—is what I mean by “culture.” In the mirrors there are traceable moments of actual cultural history, of provenance. They are lifted from the real past. The box works however, whilst stylistically specific in their own right, pertain concurrently to a range of conceivable precedents without committing in full to any one in particular. In terms of style, or appearance, their forms are my inventions. What does seem to bring these works together, however, is that both the boxes and the mirrors could be thought of as objects that figuratively lack a kind of wholeness.
DH: True, both the boxes and the mirrors give a sense of awaiting completion…
SJ: Right, both works seem to require some additional, imagined or actual, concluder—such as an observer (of course) or indeed some more explicit content. I’ll try to respond further to this by picking up on an earlier remark of yours. You used the word “withdrawal,” that “there is a sense of withdrawal in these works,” which I think, as a term, does something similar to evasion. Or elusion. Which are all words that are at odds with completion. So if there is something that appears to be eliciting any of these terms, something that eludes completion, then it is possibly to be found in the consequence of a plurality of emphases; the consequence of an object insisting simultaneously on both itself and it's immediate situation. Like a mirror, which repeats everything before it whilst biding the present tense—a now which is, obviously, ever unending.
Peripheral or adjunct things then, plus the immediate conditions of the work, all become the work. Its viewer included, as they / we become unwitting performers of sorts, conflating the audience / performer boundary. The experiencer becomes (part of) the experience. Which again opens up potential confusions in the framing and the framed relation. A similar question as before then arises: where is it exactly that the work starts and / or stops? All this is, I think, at least the case with the mirrors. With the boxes, however, their sense of incompletion is different. It’s more obvious…
DH: In a way it’s quite surprising that these works—both the boxes and the mirrors—which seem to be so detailed and precise and specific in form, lead us to discuss the relationships between the work and its observer. And yes, the observer’s engagement is always a performance of sorts. What has made you consider these relationships so particularly?
SJ: I suppose it’s something in the weirdness of objects and their (in)ability to communicate. Or rather in the endless shortcomings in communication between people and things, which is something that produces in me some sort of insatiable anxiety. A feeling of being constantly shortchanged. An object can never be whole: if objects and their reality are constituted in the process of knowledge, or in the process of developing speech and language about them, which is ever ongoing, then it is precisely because there must be an irreducible part within the object itself. An object is never whole as there must be something in it that keeps escaping us. Maybe this thing is our own gaze? I.e. something that is immanent in both the object and the subject. Something of us that is inscribed in the object itself… This might not make much sense, but in an understanding that there is invariably some aspect of an object that remains unattainable, one might find (perversely) a reason to keep on making.