OtherPeoplesPixels Interviews Jed Morfit

La Balena (2017) Fiberglass reinforced plaster, wicker, paint. 19.75 x 11.5 x 16.375

JED MORFIT deconstructs and reconstructs—sometimes literally—classical sculptural forms like the bust and the bas relief. With an extensive tool belt that ranges from age-old mold-making techniques to 3D-printing and laser-cutting, he explores the changing expressions of fashion alongside the universal impulse to adorn oneself. The titles of recent works hint at the relationship between evolution in nature (e.g. Gills: Grow a Pair) and in culture (e.g. Deepfake National Monument). Jed received his MFA in Sculpture from the Rhode Island School of Design. He was a Fellow at the Center For Emerging Visual Artists from 2007-2009 and received a New Jersey Council On the Arts Fellowship in 2009. His numerous awards include the Louise Kahn Award for Sculpture (2006) and the Dexter Jones Award from the National Sculpture Society (2011 and 2012). You can virtually view his 2020 solo exhibition Adapting to Change at Paradigm Gallery here. His work will be included in Paste and Cut: Contemporary Sculpture in Plaster, which opens August 31, 2021 at the Lauren Rogers Museum of Art in Laurel, Mississippi. Jed lives and works in New Jersey.

OtherPeoplesPixels: A recurring form in your work is the bust. Older works—Vane (Natal Plums)(2017) or The Oyster (2017), for example—appear to be based on real living people. Is that the case?

Jed Morfit: I am a professor of sculpture at Stockton University, and my teaching practice has always had a big impact on my personal work. I assign projects I am interested in, and inevitably end up wanting to participate in the process. Around 2016, I had a class of upper level students create self portraits. In the process of helping them, I spent a lot of time staring at their faces in the unique way you do when you are creating a portrait. AnemoneThe Oyster, and La Balena are all modeled on students from that class. 

At the time, I was interested in contemporary fashion’s relationship to sculpture and imagining how busts—which always reflect the fashion of their time—might look in fashions inspired by artists like Alexander McQueen, Philip Treacy, or John Galliano.

Anemone (2017) Fiberglass reinforced plaster, zip ties, paint. 22.5 x 11.5 x 9.75

OPP: In your most recent work, the busts look like modified neoclassical sculptures. What led to the shift in subject matter?

JM: While I was happy with this series, I ended up feeling like I had not pushed the relationship between the figures and the fashion far enough. The figures in that series were almost like mannequins, modeling imagined “fashion” that could, theoretically, be worn. That felt a little timid to me. These are sculptures, not people. Why not let the “fashion” go beyond skin deep? 

Thinking it over, I realized that I was too invested in my relationship to the subject and quality of the likeness to make real change. In my recent work, I attempted to mediate these attachments by restricting myself to working with 3D scans I could find online. Working digitally with “found” source material made it possible for me to maintain some emotional distance, to start modifying the form at the start of the process, and to make more dramatic changes to the figure along the way.

Paved With Good Intentions (2012) Urethane plastic, wood, nails, paint. 61 x 42 x 5"

OPP: You mixed contemporary and art historical imagery in earlier bas relief sculptures like You Wish and Paved With Good Intentions, both from 2012. Could you pick one of these all-over compositions and tell us about the imagery you’ve juxtaposed?

JM: I wish I could say there was a coherent rationale behind the imagery for this work, but if there was a logic behind those decisions, it was largely hidden from me. I knew I would need a lot of material to make this project work, and time is always a factor, so I couldn’t really allow myself to overthink the imagery (always a danger for me). My memory of this process mostly involves rolling out little slabs of Super Sculpey and free associating. 

Paved With Good Intentions is probably the piece from this series that makes the clearest reference to art history: the giant figures striding across the landscape are based on the central figure in Brughel’s Dulle Griet. At the time, I was a junior faculty member, perennially worried about tenure, with two small children and a house in the suburbs. I spent a lot of time feeling overwhelmed and anxious, and trying (in vain) to get some distance from the chaos of my daily life. I can’t remember exactly what inspired me to include Mad Meg in this series, but she looks like the kind of desperate, harried, and opportunistic scavenger I could relate to at that moment. 

Parting Lines (2020) Plaster, paint, yarn, adhesive. 23 x 14 x 37.75”

OPP: What materials do you return to again and again and why? 

JM: I am currently pulling together work for an exhibition at the Laurel Rogers Museum of Art organized around plaster, and I suppose if there is a material I return to again and again, that would be it. It’s such a generous and versatile material, and I really appreciate how humble it is. It’s strong, and it has definitely played a role in the history of the genre, but it’s not bronze, or marble. It’s not a good material for anyone who intends to make a statement across millennia, and that’s fine with me.

Deepfake National Monument (2020). 32" x 11" x 27”

OPP: Adapting to Change (2020), your recent show at Paradigm Gallery in Philadelphia, includes some shifts in terms of process and form, correct?

JM: Adapting To Change represented a huge change for me, and I’m still trying to process what it meant, or how to think about it going forward. I wanted that body of work to throw everything I knew into question—and it did—but it was hard. It’s probably not surprising, but making big shifts to the way you think is confusing and uncomfortable.  

Material diagram for The Good Sister (2020) Sculptamold, plaster, urethane foam, thermoplastic, wood, metal. 9.5 x 11.25 x 25”

OPP: How do these shifts relate to the content of the work?

JM: This body of work emerged from the desire to incorporate digital technology in a way that felt authentic and integral to the process. At the time I felt (and still feel) like most sculptures involving digital tools looked as though fabrication was the last step—the equivalent of hitting the “print” button. I wanted to make work that was informed by this technology at every step of the process. 

For example, The Good Sister started with a scan I found online and modified using 3D modeling software. The shape of the armature was extracted from the final 3D model, and a CNC router was used to cut it out of thin sheets of insulating foam. The face was 3D printed, then molded, finally and cast in tinted plaster. The armature was covered in a plaster-based material, modeled by hand, and then carved and sanded to reveal the underlying structure. The red “mask” is  actually 3D printer filament, anchored to the form by laser cut guides. 

Learning these new techniques and working out they might interact and influence one another made for a very slow, very challenging process, and ended up reflecting the larger theme of the show which was, (as the title suggests) about the difficulties of adapting to change.

Gills: Grow A Pair (2020) Plaster, paint, paper, beads, urethane foam, thermoplastic, wire, glue. 11 x 11 x 33.5”

OPP: The addition of bright colors and embellishments made me think of the relatively recent art-historical revelation that classical sculpture from antiquity was not originally as marble-white as neoclassicists thought. Is this body of work a response to this discovery?

JM: While I would say that seeing the Like Life exhibition at the Met Breuer in 2018 had a profound impact on me, I would have to say I was less influenced by the chromatic history of sculpture than I was by the sculptural qualities of fashion. Since color is such an important aspect of fashion, it felt important to incorporate it into this series. 

What really made a dramatic difference were a couple of studio visits with friends to look at what I thought was finished work. They encouraged me to think about the qualities of color inherent to material, rather than simply painted surfaces. Those conversations fundamentally changed the way I thought about the work and probably added a year to the process. 

To see more of Jed's work, please visit www.jedediahmorfit.com and follow him on Instagram @jedmorfit.

Featured Artist Interviews are conducted by Chicago-based artist  Stacia Yeapanis.  When she’s not writing for OPP, Stacia explores the relationship between repetition, desire and impermanence in cross-stitch embroideries, remix video, collage and impermanent installations. She is an Adjunct Associate Professor in the Department of Fiber and Material Studies at The School of the Art Institute of Chicago, where she received her MFA in 2006. Stacia was a 2011-2012 Artist-in-Residence at  BOLT in Chicago. Her solo exhibitions include shows at Siena Heights University (Michigan, 2013), Heaven Gallery (Chicago 2014), Indianapolis Art Center (Indianapolis, 2017), Robert F. DeCaprio Art Gallery (Palos Hills, Illinois 2018), Kent State Stark (North Canton, 2019), and Finlandia University (Hancock, Michigan 2020). Stacia is one of three 2021 Artists-in-Residence at Zócalo Apartments (Houston, TX). Follow her  @staciayeapanis to see what happens  @zocalo_air.