Art by Elizabeth Duffy
Joy Garnett: Please give us a little background about yourself and your development as an artist.
Elizabeth Duffy: Becoming an artist was not in my cultural vocabulary growing up as an Irish Catholic girl in the 1960s and 70s. We were taught artists were called, like a saint. It was a vocation, you could never choose art. As a girl, I remember an art teacher telling me she was an artist, and I felt I was in the presence of the divine. I waited and waited and waited to be called—nothing. In my twenties, after feeling lost and confused (more than my normal day-to-day), I went ahead, striking out without sanction, flailing about, trying first jewelry, then costume restoration, art history and then fine art. I worked for a jeweler in Chelsea in the 80s and our studio was in a loft building behind a sculptor’s studio. I remember crossing through the sculptor’s space to get to my workplace each morning and seeing her sitting alone, still as a statue, looking at her work. I knew I wanted that kind of life. My brother encouraged me to do what I cared about—he’s a conservator at the Museum of Modern Art and is a massively gifted artist. I owe him everything for that.
JG: How did you come to explore the relationships between surveillance patterns and power structures with what has been referred to objectively as well as ironically as “women’s work”?
ED: Wow—big question. My answer may sound incidental. I remember millions of credit card offers flowing through my mail slot when I lived in Brooklyn in the 90s. It’s how I survived in New York for twenty years: credit cards. They arrived with bills, lateness notices and an occasional letter or postcard. Once you took out one line of credit, a deluge of offers would arrive in the mail, creating a vicious cycle. I started using the envelopes as an art material. I loved the variety of their patterned interiors, an early surveillance device to keep peering eyes from reading another’s mail. I imagined the designers creating patterns that hide, and I loved their range, the ingenious efficacy of them. I made drawings in them and drawings of them. I collaged them together into large installation pieces. I did a wall installation at Wave Hill in the Bronx using envelopes where the patterns traveled onto the surrounding architecture. This was after 9/11. That day changed everything. Surveillance became omnipresent. Everyone became suspicious, guarded, fearful. The envelopes took on a larger meaning—they became artifacts of surveillance capitalism.
I printed the patterns onto fabrics, and made a line of clothing and objects called Insidious Objects about the embedded and sinister nature of surveillance. I was interested in how the patterns had a kind of latent beauty despite their deterministic willfulness. I learned more about the malignant investments in coal and private prisons these pattern purveyors hid. One day while glancing at the newspaper, I saw what I thought was a quilt and was stunned to realize I was looking at an aerial view of Guantanamo Prison. I began to research the patterns present in prison architecture and found they closely resemble quilt patterns: concentric circles, adjacent triangles, intersecting squares. This led to making my Maximum Security work, which includes quilts, wallpapers, and domestic objects.
I have always been interested in the intimacy of the home space, and the power structures that command it. My interest draws on my empathy towards women who could not self-actualize because of the power structures that held them back. My mom and every being who has labored anonymously and had their voice quieted. My current Wearing work—objects made from braided rugs—is a kind of memorial to those unheard voices. I at first approached working with these rugs with ambivalence. Growing up with them in old farmhouses in New England, I found them dusty and depressing, evocative of death and always underfoot. But I feel the powerful presence of the anonymous women who made these rugs—their personalities and frustrations are revealed to me as I work with them. Some are fastidious and carefully crafted, while others feel full of rage.
JG: I want to know more about your research methods. What kinds of sources were you drawn to early on, and how have they developed and changed over time? Do changes in form, structure and scale in your work connect to changes in the source material you choose to work with?
ED: I respond to place and am fascinated by nesting, by the objects and environments people surround themselves with. I had moved eleven times by the age of eighteen, so displacement is my “comfort” zone and I’m forever wavering between wanting to feel a sense of home and my anxiety at the prospect of it. Artist residencies have been immensely fruitful, and a way for me to focus on a project. While I despise being uprooted, it is generative for my work. It’s all a kind of research, moving through and observing the world. Displacement, anxiety and unease are where I’m at home and the place my work begins.
I’ve found teaching to be an extraordinary gift, even though I’ve always felt like an outsider in academic circles. I approach teaching sensorially rather than academically, and I read like a diner at a buffet—an easily distracted omnivore. I love to share my love of how to make things and am buoyed by the idealism and optimism of my students. I’m indebted to my school, Roger Williams University in Bristol, RI, for its support of my work, which has allowed me to take on large-scale, complex projects such as Overlander, an installation I made in Newport. I refashioned a 19th-century carriage using security envelope patterns in a space that was formerly a carriage house for a grand estate. The space intersected with many of my interests: class structure, trade and exchange, transience and domestic space. Roger Williams also helped fund my solo exhibition Apartment 2B at DM Contemporary in New York, where I transformed the gallery into an apartment made entirely of security envelope patterns. I was fortunate to receive a National Endowment for the Humanities Grant to the Bard Graduate Center in NYC, where I studied material culture and learned from extraordinary thinkers and writers about the relationships between makers and objects.
JG: I’m interested in how your work embodies the feminist appropriation of control versus agency. Does it actively confront theoretical or sociological discussions of the Panopticon [Foucault etc. – or not!] or is it a more oblique examination?
ED: Foucault believed the Panopticon was omnipresent within schools, hospitals and public spaces. His ideas were revelatory to me and clarified much about how the world operates in my own experience and how I moved through, adapted and lived within embedded and pre-coded structures. There’s now a camera that follows me around the classroom as I teach (in a circular building, no less)—the Panopticon is my workplace! We are surveilled and self-surveil in our homes with Nests, social media, cell phones, and computers. In my work, I try to explore the unease and paranoia this instills.
Our surveillance state has injuriously affected the underclass and women in particular because they hold less power—a bewildering condition and the reason I feel compelled to make art that speaks to these inequities. I struggle with the agency that I have as an artist, and for years I have asked myself why I am not doing something more effectual. I am in awe of people who do that work, but I am built for this kind of work.
JG: This may seem too common a question, but I have to ask it since your work takes on issues of incarceration and surveillance: How has quarantine shaped the development of your work this past year? Has it shifted the underlying ideas you’ve been working with as well as teaching and making art? I assume that like most people you’ve been adjusting to working in fairly isolated conditions. Tell us about the interruptions, disasters, triumphs, revelations, etc. you’ve broached or absorbed in your work this year and how it dovetails (or conflicts) with your core subjects.
ED: In March 2020, I started a residency at the Ucross Foundation in Wyoming. I had a year off from teaching. During the first week, we delved into our work while getting to know each other at spectacular evening dinners and hiking in the High Plains. By the second week, news of the pandemic was getting dire, and on March 18th Ucross closed the residency. I had already completed one project, so I felt gratified if frightened to fly back to Providence where I live and work. Later, Ucross generously invited those of us who were adversely affected by COVID to return to the residency for a month. I was able to travel back in August. As you know, this is an unusual gift since ordinarily, you write a proposal a year or so in advance and by the time you are offered a residency you are in an entirely different place with your work. But I’d had six months to think about what I wanted to do when I returned, a unique opportunity to create something I’d been reflecting on. It became a piece about displacement, humility, and getting by at a time when everything felt upended and off-kilter. The piece, a tent made of worn rag rugs placed on a ridge on the High Plains, is also a response to that magnificent alien terrain. The area has many indigenous artifacts, including areas with tipi circles, so I wanted to honor the peoples that inhabited the land and acknowledge the ongoing refugee crisis.
As for the quarantine, I’m finding my inner hermit has been pretty okay through all of this, and I can finally explain to others what my “normal” life is like. I’ve been teaching in person since fall, and I see the impact and importance that making art exerts in this moment—how it roots people and gives us a sense of pride and purpose in a bewildering time.
JG: Finally, what artworks and which artists have you drawn from in the development of your own language, and what specific works or tropes did you seek to invent or re-invent?
ED: I’m a geek for historic house museums, ephemera, flea markets and material culture. I love art that looks at history and craft, and that reimagines the power structures therein. I am subversive and mischievous, and I love meticulous and repetitive work (I once flirted with becoming an accountant).
My education was a hodgepodge of academic painting (New York Academy of Art, Art Students League) to craft (I studied jewelry with Lori Hollander, who made reproductions for the Metropolitan Museum) and fashion (I worked with Valerie Steele, Harold Koda and Richard Martin at the Fashion Institute of Technology) to art boot camp (New York Studio School, where I studied with two ferociously talented painters, Rosemarie Beck and Mercedes Matter). I studied at Brooklyn College for my MFA, where I discovered an interdisciplinary spirit and freedom to create. William T. Williams and Lennart Anderson were both big influences on my work there. It was Williams who helped me find my way to rethinking craft, which is my abiding interest.
I think I am best suited to rethinking the paradigms that formed me and my generation of women. Eva Hesse’s diaries and work were an early and enduring influence, a revelation about urgency and freedom of the imagination. Harmony Hammond’s rug pieces have long inspired my work. Mona Hatoum, Lee Bontecou and Doris Salcedo are simultaneously gut punch and talisman to me, always. There are worlds to reinvent there, and that is my turf.