Constructing a Career : Jill Giegerich balances success with the usual artist's burdens: reconciling the past and making sense of the present

Jill Giegerich has got it but she does not flaunt it. She is among the most gifted and applauded of a younger generation of Los Angeles artists that emerged from the California Institute of the Arts in the '70s and went on to make waves in the international mainstream.

At 38, Giegerich is distinctly a hatched talent, but bits of eggshell cling to her as they do to such classmates as Lari Pittman and Mike Kelley. Despite an art world now spawning overnight success, it still takes some artists years to forge a solid aesthetic track record. Could a woman artist working in Los Angeles be at a disadvantage?

"I'm an avid feminist," she says, "but in my work I allow no social pressure. I am upset at the lack of women and people of color in a world that is supposed to be in the avant-garde of social change. The art world here is actually extremely conservative. With all Los Angeles' diversity, the art scene is still a white bastion."

Professionally, Giegerich has little to complain about. She's been seen in eight solo and 10 group exhibitions since 1980, including one in Japan and the biennial of New York's Whitney Museum. Her work sells briskly with major pieces bringing up to $30,000. An admiring contemporary called her "the empress of L.A. art." She recently switched galleries, moving from Margo Leavin--an established leading showcase--to Fred Hoffman, a recently arrived leading showcase.

The art world regards changing galleries as old Hollywood's equivalent of a star swapping studios--a cause for deliciously vicious speculation and a barometer of one's career. But, where Lana would have told Hedda all about it, Giegerich is resolutely mum on the subject. It seems, however, unlikely that she would have moved were it not to her advantage.

"I confess I have this ongoing reel of tape in my head having to do with my career. I struggle against the feeling that no matter what happens it's never enough. In that mood I won't be happy until the whole world puts me on a pedestal and I'm given a parade at the end of which I ascend to heaven.

"That's bottomless-pit thinking. My more mature side realizes I've worked hard and gotten there. I'm generally respected, get to show regularly and don't have to work another job."

You would never suspect voracious ambition from looking at her, or success from looking at her studio. She is tall, leggy and given to jogging shoes, shorts and men's shirts. Seated, she relaxes and gestures loosely. A classic, clean-cut type with straight brown hair and thoughtful brown eyes, her speech combines soothing softness with a candor so easy she sounds like someone who has experienced psychotherapy.

"I've had a little of that," she confesses. "Every seven years or so I suffer some sort of breakdown and have to stop working. I'm just recovering from one now. My back just fell apart. You have to have faith that humans go through these difficult, painful things to arrive at a new order that will be better than the old order."

Her studio is in an alley near Adams and Fairfax, an ethnically mixed neighborhood looking vaguely deserted on account of the wide boulevard. Her immaculate blue bike leans against chain-link gates that open to a cluttered work space about the size of a two-car garage.

'I can't offer you coffee or anything," she informs a visitor. "There are no amenities here. It's just a studio."

She does, however, sit on a folding metal chair, hospitably leaving a paint-encrusted, chrome-frame padded job to her company.

A moment of awkward, first-encounter silence is filled by glancing around a workroom filling up with new pieces that look familiar--part painting, part sculpture. All of it is in black, browns, whites and tans.

"Color doesn't play a part in my work. To me, using it would be like putting on makeup. My work has never taken a left turn. It's really been the same since I was about 10. It's all one long circular thought process. In college when I thought about what you have to do to be an artist, about 'great works' and 'bodies of work,' I'd make something absolutely dreadful.

"I call them constructions. I'm interested in building materials like plywood, cork and industrial sandpaper. When you take them out of their usual context they take on a lot of air and float off and become anomalies. Sometimes I try to make materials function as something they really aren't--like making printed wood-grain function as water."

She seems to speak of a work leaning against the wall. A corner of a black box juts from swirling, liquefied wood-grain.

"Sometimes I can identify the catalyst for a piece. That black-box thing came from a dream. In it someone told me there was this box at the bottom of the sea that held something important having to do with who I am. I dove down and saw this remarkable box. It was alive and sparkling in the water. I had the dream almost two years ago, but I remembered the way it hinted at an inclusive existence and visual ecstasy and magic. I didn't open it, I just left it.

"A piece may grow from specific ideas but I'm always willing to release them at any point. I don't look for any particular metaphor. I want my voice and the viewer's voice together to decide what the meaning of a piece may be."

Another construction leans nearby. Its background looks like a hugely enlarged section of an antique architectural print. A big box in floor-strippers sandpaper juts off the surface. A brass candlestick rests on the top ledge. Somehow, the combination of romance, history and modernism evokes the purgatory scene in Jean Cocteau's classic film "Orpheus." Her work often evokes the same spirit as that of the classic Spanish Cubist, Juan Gris.

"I think an artist has permission to plunder art history.

I'm interested in things that are in a state of flux and tension. Cubism has this dopey, straightforward way of doing things. It influenced me greatly. I love to proceed in a flat-footed way because if you approach a work without any conclusion in mind it produces its own gestalt and leads to paradox and enigma."

Giegerich was born in Chappaqua, N.Y., to a 42-year-old mother. The daughter was a late arrival with two grown brothers. The artist recalls Chappaqua as a commuter community that would tally closely with most people's fantasies of blissful Ivy League affluence and summer holidays in the Caribbean. But underneath, she says, "There was a lot of weird dysfunctional stuff--adult alcoholism was rife. Somebody told me that Chappaqua once had the highest teen-age suicide rate in the country. People try to act normal but underneath we're pretty crazy."

She describes her mother, Elizabeth, as a model of relaxed stability. Her father, Carl, was an advertising executive. (He would die in 1980 after what his daughter calls "a life of abuse," adding, "The official cause of death was pneumonia but he was an alcoholic who also had lung cancer and Parkinson's disease.")

In school, Giegerich was known as "the kid who makes art."

"I was dyslexic and a bit of a geek," she says pleasantly.

When Giegerich was 17, her parents separated and she moved to Connecticut with her mother, leaving the house she had lived in since birth.

"My last year of high school was crazy. I'd never before been in a new social situation. I didn't know how to make a friend."

Feeling angry and uprooted, she rebelled--but checked first.

"I asked my school counselor the minimum number of days of attendance required to graduate. It turned out to be very low, so I just stayed home reading and experimenting with drugs. They never got to be a problem. I knew I had a life ahead and didn't want to ruin my brain."

In 1970, after building up a grubstake as a waitress, she hitchhiked to San Francisco with her boyfriend. She took a job in what she remembers as a "horrendous San Francisco sweatshop that made leather clothes. They made me the assistant manager. I screwed up so badly I was fired. I took some classes at San Francisco City College but it was depressing."

One day she spotted a psychedelic ad for an experimental school near Portland called Mount Angel College and had a premonition it was her kind of place.

"It had been a Catholic school, so there were still these nuns around, but mostly it was 70 wild kids from the '60s going crazy. I met an artist named Tom Cassidy and we formed a conceptual art group, the Space Angels. We went wild. I felt like I had found a place."

After a year of anarchy in the pristine forests of Oregon, she moved on to CalArts with some classmates.

"Most people went to CalArts looking for less structure. I was looking for more. At Mount Angel you could get academic credit for having breakfast. CalArts was an amazing experience."

She did not study directly with John Baldessari, the artist-guru who put CalArts on the art map with his "post-studio" conceptual art. She prefered to dip into the minds of a variety of teachers from Judy Pfaff to Michael Asher and Vito Acconci.

While still a student, she married one of her teachers, figurative artist John Mandel. They now have a 6-year-old son.

("John and I are each other's most important critic," she says. "It's a good working relationship." But, she admits "Abrasion and professional jealousy creep in. He's 11 years older, so he's put a lot of that stuff to rest. I'm competitive and territorial.")

She thrived on what she describes as CalArts' "devil's advocate" aesthetic. She says teachers constantly challenged students' assumptions, forcing them to hone their ideas to a state of absolute self-assurance--which she now appears to possess in large measure.

"CalArts formed a distinct language, but you can't categorize a CalArts 'look.' It is supposed to be conceptual and cool, but I don't think my work is like that. I'm trying to get down to the animal nature of things."

Specific academic critical theories such as semiotics and deconstruction, often used to define her sort of art, do not interest her. She doesn't read theoreticians such as Roland Barthes, Jacques Derrida or Jean Baudrillard, nor can she name any artists who do. Giegerich's cultural pursuits and inspirations lie mainly outside the arena of contemporary art.

"The art world is in a mess," she says. "But I'm not sure it ever wasn't. I'm disappointed that when I want to be uplifted, going to an art gallery is not an option."

Instead, she turns to film, books or music. She is haunted by the Werner Herzog film "Kaspar Hauser," which traces the life of a youth raised like an animal as he comes traumatically into normal society with its smug assumptions and Draconian demands. She is influenced by Feodor Dostoevsky, Gabriel Garcia Marquez and two British travel writers, Bruce Chatwin and Redmond O'Hanlon.

"They put themselves into extraordinary extreme circumstances and then write of their ideas of humanity and what it is. Chatwin's last book was about the Australian aborigines and his idea that humankind went wrong when it settled down."

Her mind and work pursue a theme of friction between elemental and civilized life. There are also questions of metamorphosis, sacrifice and faith. She likes Beethoven's late quartets, Arabic songs that inspire religious ecstasy and a recording of the last known castrato, a papal choirmaster.

"I want my work to find better ways of expanding the vocabulary for investigating a chaotic world. I want to sensibly pull that chaos around me and make something enriching, to take a world that is ugly and transitory, cruel and sublime, and find a way to walk through it with moments of understanding and flashes of insight."

She has been interested in Buddhist and Hindu mythologies and the idea of a path in life embodied in the concept of the Tao. Aside from having a father who was a lapsed Catholic, the Giegerich family was not religious. There is something both troubled and spiritual about her artistic philosophy, but she is still capable of such all-American homilies as, "Mom just always said that things would work out and that everything that happens is for the best."

For the Record Los Angeles Times Sunday September 23, 1990 Home Edition Calendar Page 95 Calendar Desk 1 inches; 16 words Type of Material: Correction The Jill Giegerich profile (Sept. 9) erred on the name of art theoretician Jacques Derrida, calling him Carlos.
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