Interview with Artist Jason Eisner

Friend of the City Reliquary and Brooklyn-based artist Jason Eisner spoke with us recently about his work, including his beautiful limited-edition print depicting Negro League great John Henry Lloyd that is part of our Museum Relief Fund!

photo of artist Jason Eisner
The artist and his materials

You moved to New York from Chicago to study art. Can you tell me about your early years as an artist in New York City?

I studied painting at the Studio School, but while I was there I also had to have some type of job, so I started working at Boxart as an art handler. Along the way I met all these fantastic people, and it was fun to be part of this community that formed around work, and it really changed my relationship to art making. I wasn’t really an art handler, I was a crate maker, the foreman of a crate shop. So I had to make a crate for Vincent Van Gogh’s Starry Night… three times, because they don’t save the crate. And every time they’d be like, “Make it especially nice.” But we’d already made it especially nice! It meant something the first time we made it, but then we had already made it two other times. 

And I just started thinking like, this whole thing, what does it really serve? Who is going to these shows, who is allowed in? And I started asking myself these much bigger questions and turning further and further away from any kind of desire to actually have exhibitions. While I’d love to make a living on art making alone, it doesn’t seem like that’s something I’m bound for. But I can’t stop making, you know, I’m driven to create, because I feel like there’s something extraordinary about the process. It’s about possibilities. Taking that impulse beyond the gallery or museum world became something I got myself very interested in.

What do you mean when you say the process is about possibilities?

Sure, and I can speak directly to the print. Negro League Baseball has an amazing history and needs more celebration. I don’t know if you’re into Star Wars at all, but my brother and I, we grew up as the Star Wars movies were coming out and we collected trading cards. And my brother also started collecting baseball trading cards, he got deep into it. So now he’s buying the Star Wars cards for the new movies, and they’re ridiculous. There’s like a million cards, you could never possibly get a complete set, you’d have to buy boxes of them. And there are characters who appear on the corner of the screen for a nanosecond, and even they have their own card. 

But there aren’t cards like this for the Negro League players. And that burns me up. Topps, the great baseball card company, is making these Star Wars cards. Why not do some form of celebration of the Negro League? And if the card makers aren’t doing that, then why not have the art makers do that? My approach to art making has always had a certain kind of do it yourself. I guess I like to see art as its own solution, but one that can suggest other possibilities. 

What does this look like in some of your other work?

I’ve done things recently more in the street world, kinds of site-specific sculptures, and I have a whole brand associated with this – AOK. Physically AOK is a site specific installation, but I would rather call it a performance intervention. Installation is the residue, ok? Although it may also be the impetus. For example, there was a subway station on Church Avenue where there used to be an advertisement, but for a long time this advertisement was missing and never replaced, there was just a metal frame. And I wanted to repair this space, so I measured it and made a painting to fit into that, that said “WORK,” but using the same font as you would see in the subway tiles that announce the station. So the site itself was the inspiration for the work.

AOK: Work

But then after measuring and painting this thing, there’s this whole moment of having to install it, which is a moment of tremendous risk. Because I’m doing something illegal, you know, and messing with the MTA is beyond just the city, that’s one of those things that could really get me in some trouble. So I try to dress as official in appearance as possible, I put on construction gear, and really hope that my measurements work out. That I can stick this thing in there, screw it in, and leave in as short a time as possible. 

And so the actual art is the performance, the sort of trick of me or my crew going to a site and leaving something behind, almost littering. And then whatever’s left behind stays there as long as it stays there. Some things are there for a very long time. That piece on the subway was there for a couple years, until the whole thing was repaired. So the performance end of it is the installation. And the intervention aspect of it is what it might do for whoever passes by in the life it has on the street. The intervention is something that might disrupt their routine. 

Is there something special or unique about doing this kind of performance intervention in New York City? 

Well, everything we do with AOK is site-specific. Another thing we did quite a bit of was putting revised barricades all around the city. There’s a kind of striped white and orange barricade, you see them everywhere, that means you’re not supposed to go by that sewer or you’re not supposed to go across the sidewalk or something. But often times they just get left alone or they’re broken. I started seeing these things all over the place, and having worked at Boxart made me want to reuse all kinds of scrap wood, to give this thing a second life. 

So I was taking scrap wood [from the barricades] and reassembling, creating these gestures, taking the vernacular of these barricades but making these shapes, and then having them stand inside of the A-frames and just sort of place them around the city in random locations. So that they looked like they were supposed to be there, but there was something impossible about them, their shape. So if you saw it in passing, you’d probably be like what, why is that there? It kind of slows you down, hopefully, to make you think a little more. And there again is that possibility. We go from one place to another in New York City without very much pause. And I was hoping to move art beyond the confines of the white cube into a public space, where anyone could have access to it as long as it was there, and it could offer them some new experience in their routine. I know it’s kind of a romantic idea.

AOK

Can you tell me about some of the interactions you have had during this process?

One more solitary AOK project had to do with me clearing out the weeds from the street tree beds in the Mott Haven area of the Bronx. My whole aim was to engage with the people who live in the Bronx. I didn’t want to be one of those artists who was just going to the Bronx to bring art to the Bronx. I wanted to experience the Bronx almost like a religious experience with a sense of humility. So I felt like, well, being on my knees and pulling out weeds and junk from these tree beds and aerating the soil was a nice way to get to know people. 

And that was a sustained project, I did that for months, one spring. Most people didn’t pay any attention at all. They saw what looked like a uniformed person doing official work and let me be. But then there were people who really took time to try to understand what I was doing, and the range of comments and conversation were really extraordinary. So in terms of possibility, of the people that saw me, some people stopped to ask me questions. And that’s mission accomplished. And the interaction level was interesting because I was first confronted by that New York hardness, and then embraced by that New York core, that warm core. It was a cool shift. 

Let’s return to the print. How did you select John Henry Lloyd? 

When I think “reliquary,” that’s a religious object that is left behind to remember. And you know, a lot of the stuff that the City Reliquary has is kitschy and schmaltzy, and that’s Americana. And there’s something religious about that and I appreciate the Reliquary’s commitment to that. But there’s also a tremendous amount of history that is profoundly spiritual and has a major impact on people, that either never had an object made for it, or had an object made and it was loved to death or washed away in a flood or sold at a garage sale or lost in a fire. 

So the Negro League history is something I’m new to myself and really interested in learning about. It’s amazing, and at the same it’s also an important part of remembering American racism. That’s something we shouldn’t be forgetting. Many people seem to be forgetting about it all the time and never learning a lesson about it. And I wonder if maybe some of that forgetting has to do with not having the object to remember. After the integration of Major League baseball, that was kind of death knell for the Negro Leagues. So these players that established long histories and made a livelihood and were heroes, and were too old to join the major leagues, were in a way lost because of this integration. So I was compelled in some way to make that object for Reliquary, a place where you should be remembering.

And then selecting the player. I work at the Tenement Museum, so that’s what I’ve done for over 10 years now and learned the process of doing historic research. So I just started looking through what Brooklyn Negro League teams there were, who’s an exceptional player on one of those teams, to celebrate New York, to celebrate the Negro League, to celebrate the Reliquary. And I settled on John Henry Lloyd, who just had an amazing long career. They called him “the shovel,” it was a name he was given in Spanish. The story is that when he’d catch a ball shot way out into one of the outfield positions, he would be able to grab it but would also grab up a chunk of earth with his mitt, like a shovel, bringing up the turf. And I thought, “Wow, who is this guy? What a hero!” And he was eventually known as Pop, because he was a kind of father figure, just a sweet guy. So he was somebody who was a very celebrated athlete, and also very human, and an inspiration to his teammates. And like many people who played, he played on all kinds of teams, but he was on the Brooklyn Royal Giants for just a couple years, so there’s a New York connection. 

We talked about the relationship between possibilities of the process and the product in your performance interventions. What does that look like for this print, and how is it different?

When I was in undergraduate school I found myself at one point very stuck with painting, which is what I was studying. And then I moved into printmaking and I think there was something physical about the process that I really needed, that I wasn’t getting either in sculpture or in painting. There’s the trick in printmaking of everything being the reverse of what you see. And that’s also magic. It’s totally magical. And I can never get over it, I still love that. Of course it’s embarrassing when it’s type and you get the type backwards, but that’s ok too. 

But in the process of making this print, for me the research and the reading about John Henry Lloyd and the Negro Leagues will be ongoing. And there’s always an ongoing imagination about what was, because there’s not a possibility of me experiencing it, and there’s very little material culture left behind to remember it through. So I felt like in making this print, some kind of double magic. Like there’s the magic of the printmaking process, which is exciting, you never know what you’re going to get. But the other magic part of it was like, maybe conjuring into life the possibility that this history might be remembered through an object, where maybe it didn’t have an object before. 

So this particular print is less like the ephemera of the performance interventions, and more like an iconography. Like this is an icon that would be surrounded by candles that burn away. So as I was making it I felt a kind of responsibility beyond just trying to represent a portrait of John Henry Lloyd. There seemed to be more at stake in the representation. The idea that people will continue this learning on their own is a quiet goal that I do hope becomes a part of the process. Beyond me. I want to see everything live beyond me. 

Many thanks, Jason! You can see more of his work here.

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