Cake, to Another Good Year, another in Vasher's series of pill pieces.
Detail from Sculpture of the Dolls.
(Entitlement, the Past is Never Dead)
was most recently shown at Albuquerque
Now at the Albuquerque Museum.
Max and Jennifer Vasher are in the midst of building their Placitas home, designed by Max and made mostly of concrete and wood.
Home is where the art is
It’s probably best to start at the center, or the heart of the matter. At the center of Jennifer Vasher’s installation, Tylenol Room—a crowd-pleaser at the recent Albuquerque Now exhibit at the Albuquerque Museum—there is a fainting couch shrouded in a dense beaded curtain made up of scores of looped strands. The beads are actually Tylenol and aspirin, 550,000 of them individually drilled and strung by hand.
Similarly, at the center of the home built by Vasher and her husband, Max, a massive brick fireplace sits ringed by wide circular stairs. Like much of the rest of the house, the stairs are poured-in-place concrete, the innermost of several concentric zones so bulky and massive in construction that it seems impossible a mere mortal could have done it himself. Just as she drilled each impossibly tiny pill with a jeweler’s bit, he had an entire bathtub-shower room poured in concrete that nearly burst the forms with its weight and heat.
“Max talks about the house being a living organism,” Vasher explains of her architect-in-training husband, pointing out the kitchen and hearth as representing the center. From here, their ideas seem to ripple outward like a pebble in a lake, gaining speed and expanding so rapidly that a poor reporter can barely scribble fast enough.
Vasher got her Master of Fine Arts degree at UNM in 2000 and has since had solo exhibitions in Paris, Atlanta, and Houston, showed at Pulse New York, and was a regular exhibitor at the Box Gallery in Santa Fe while still in graduate school. But hardly anyone seems to know her in Placitas, where she and Max have lived for three years, because she basically doesn’t like to leave the house.
In their twin workshops flanking the core of their concrete aerie, Jennifer and Max radiate ideas, concepts, projects, and plans. As an undergraduate at the Herron School of Art in Indianapolis, where she’s from, Jennifer started out as a realistic figure painter. But it wasn’t long before a lust for materials took over, and she started adding ground-up charcoal and clay to her paints for texture, then moved to encaustic, liquid rubber, and bolt resin until finally the canvas disappeared altogether.
Her figures turned three-dimensional as she strived to communicate “the visceralness” of bodies, their externality as the shell of the soul, and ultimately as a metaphor for the social and political body. “I like opposing materials—the plastic next to the organic,” says Jennifer, whose restless experimentation with commercial effluvia contrasts with Max’s strict allegiance to honest materials and transparent construction.
Her workshop now spills over with strange materials morphing into stranger new forms. For the last few years, she has been fascinated with pills as a metaphor for everything from strength to comfort to weakness: pills strung into nets and blankets; pills glued into flowers and then molded, the molds themselves made into wall tiles. Construct a common object out of pills—a cake, a blanket, a flower—and it suddenly explodes with social metaphor and political commentary.
For Max, the house itself serves as his metaphor, the ultimate expression of his aesthetic and moral philosophy. A tattoo artist by profession (“to support my architecture habit”), he designed the structure with help from his former employer and mentor, Albuquerque architect Bart Prince. One has only to meet their Great Dane puppy Roark, named for the hero of Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead, to get a hint of Max’s pragmatic, purist leanings.
“I saw passive heating and cooling as an opportunity,” he says, explaining that he designed the house around the harnessing of nature. An outdoor courtyard pool and water cascading over a wall provide evaporative cooling as breezes are drawn through the house by high transom windows. A wide overhang shades interior rooms in summer, while the low winter sun shining through the polycarbonate slit windows is absorbed by huge black concrete columns opposite, a low-tech heat source.
As a tattoo artist, Max often works large, Jennifer explains, and has to follow the curves of the body. “We’re both ‘body’ artists,” she points out, “so we wanted the house to radiate out.” Building walls with him got her thinking about wall installations using plaster in varying textures—like skin, a metaphor for how things wear down over time and then regenerate. The play of surface, texture, circulating air and water, sound, and light in the Vasher home clearly provides them with an endless universe of metaphors.
Jennifer and Max were brought to Placitas by Max’s mother, Carolyn Dinsmore McKinley, who owned and operated the historic Hacienda de Placitas B&B for many years. Max did his graduate project in architecture at the Placitas Community Center, which adjoins the property they happened across on a snowy day several years ago, for the just-lowered price of $70,000. That’s how a tattoo artist and an adjunct professor of art at Central New Mexico Community College could afford to live in Placitas. “We feel like we stole our way in,” Jennifer says.
The house still looks like a construction zone, and the couple has a long road ahead with finishing the interior and yard. But they seem undeterred by the scale of any undertaking. One of Jennifer’s favorite metaphors is the “pillar of strength. A stalagmite, for example, forms piece by piece, pill by pill, drop by drop, until it becomes the thing that holds you up, your structure, your house,” she says.
Her two Tylenol rooms each took more than two years of drilling and stringing, and in any other climate, the task would have been impossible—on humid days, the pills burst when threaded. The obsessive task has been compared with the Catholic rosary, a prayer for redemption, hope, and faith. “I’ve always had this thing about searchers and seekers,” says Jennifer, whose father was an itinerant salesman and preacher from Mississippi.
No stranger to pain and hardship, the artist married at 21, had a daughter at 22, and divorced a year later. People close to her have suffered and died from alcohol and drug use; a cousin committed suicide when Jennifer was in high school, which led her to pursue art “because I really thought I should do what I wanted,” even as a young woman with a baby to raise. Provocative and biting, her exhibits after graduate school included polyurethane rubber castings of female nudes, including herself, with titles such as Venus Dong.
As she approaches middle age, however, things seem to be easing in Jennifer Vasher’s life. The Richard Levy Gallery has taken her to New York, Washington, and Miami. Her daughter, 21, lives independently in Albuquerque and even paints occasionally. At 43, Jennifer could easily pass for 30, not only on natural good looks but also a high vibrational energy that suggests she has not really slowed down.
She and Max continue to hatch arty ideas, like moving their massive wooden bed—which he made out of wooden planks and fitted with lights—to an “island” in their arroyo, installing it in a gazebo with mosquito netting, and renting it (wink-wink) to couples. It’s a fitting metaphor for their creative energy radiating from the hearth out into orbit, much like her art installations—from heart to mind to material structure, a body of ideas made visible.