Jody MacDonald: Under the Veneer of Whimsy

Jody MacDonald, Everywhere All Over. All Over. Everywhere. (detail), mixed media, 168″ x 180″ x 96″, 2022.

Jody MacDonald dissects in detail the concept of “identity” through a cast of small-scale 2-D and textile-based 3-D surrogates. She uses repurposed materials to create figures and detailed, miniature accessories (wigs, clothing, shoes furniture) set inside elaborate, mixed media environments with clues which shed light on the complex, often conflicting narratives.

Tell me about yourself.

As a child I loved to pretend. Playtime was spent trying on different identities, mainly animal or insect. I carefully observed the world around me and took imitation to a high level. I have a very distinct memory of when I was 5 or 6 years old. I had a one-piece, long-sleeved, butt-flap bottomed pajamas, in two-tone, herringbone-patterned green. Wearing my pj’s, I would go down to my family’s partly finished basement where I would quietly and patiently maneuver in the way I’d watched praying mantises move: slowly rotating my head, arms crooked and legs bent, swaying gently from side to side. Suddenly I would spot my unsuspecting prey, seize it violently with my spiked forearms, and attack it with my mandibles. Yes, that was me, chewing on a pillow grasped between my hands and forearms, performing very precisely choreographed movements based on what I had obsessively observed.

Decades later I continue to compulsively try on what I observe in the world and replicate it in meticulous detail, role-playing through a growing cast of small-scale 2-D and textile-based 3-D surrogates that examine and dissect the concept of “identity”.

Tell me about your process.

Since 2002, I have been creating 20” tall textile figures and 10” tall articulated paper figures. Most often these figures possess unconventional anatomy or are animal/human hybrids. 2D or 3D, each piece begins with a photographic image of my face. I don’t consider the work to be a collection of self-portraits, but rather a series of roles in which I’ve been cast. These roles transgress historical timelines and boundaries (gender, species, geography) to comment on social and political issues. For Textile figures and their detailed accessories, I combine a process of labor-intensive hand and machine sewing. Each figure takes an average of 50-80 hours to complete. More recently (since 2018), textile figures have been set inside elaborate, mixed media environments. These pieces can take 200-250 hours to complete.

2D pieces are started as sketches meant to work out logistics of 3D pieces. I get carried away and they end up being polished artworks in their own right.

I am drawn to slow, repetitive processes and use both craft and fine art techniques in my practice. Due to the length of time it takes to finish a piece, the initial concept evolves and becomes layered with sly references to art history and contemporary culture. Dark humor, satire, and ambivalence are key elements in my work. Scale is also important in my work. At 1:8 to 1:4 human scale the intimate size and intricate detail of the work coaxes viewers in for a closer look where, under a veneer of whimsy, sinister narratives lurk. I’m inspired by artists that create very personal and highly narrative work: Louise Bourgeois, Frida Kahlo, Marisol, are some of my heroines.

What is the genesis of your series Freaks, Geeks, and Strange Girls?

It was initially inspired by a gorgeous book of vintage sideshow posters of the same name (published by Hardy Marks, 1996). I wondered what these Freaks, Geeks, and Strange Girls might do if these archetypes were taken out of their sideshow environment and placed in other, more contemporary settings. Dioramas began with figures, and environments stem from that. The freak show’s foundation of fact merged with fiction parallels my fascination with the push/pull between—real/not real, genuine/artificial, and objects/individuals—whether through masquerade, posturing or camouflage they are never quite what they seem. This attitude of imitation carries through into creation: upholstery fringe becomes hair, sandpaper emulates poolside terrazzo, and three-dimensional objects are flattened into cardboard cutout representations.

Each piece features a detailed, textile-based figure set inside an elaborate mixed media diorama that highlights the character’s desire, or indifference in a specific moment within their surroundings. For the viewer, piecing together the layered elements of the diorama delivers a deeper understanding of that character’s ultimate desires. Do the the characters choose to fade into the background, or do they choose to be visible?

“REAL”, the recurring text found in the pieces, is a spin-off from a prominent text button found on many vintage sideshow banners: “ALIVE”. A vague promise of truth to the outlandish visions depicted on canvas, the statement “ALIVE” implied that the attractions were “real on the inside”. In this series REAL has become a corporate identity; the persistent claim of “realness” brands beverages, sports equipment, and celebrity pulp publications. Peppered throughout the work there are references to contemporary culture (IKEA, kombucha bars, current politics) as well as art historical references manipulating imagery of well-known artists such as Hockney, Manet, Degas and the Guerilla Girls. These serve as homages to a few of my art heroes (and maybe an affectionate dig to Koons and Warhol).

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Jody MacDonald, The Conjoined Twins (front detail), mixed media, 66″ x 24″ x 24″, 2019.

Can you elaborate on Lion-Faced Man, the first piece in the series?

Lion-faced Man is one of the characters that choses to assimilate and blend into his environment as best he can. Early in the process, Lion-faced Man presented to me as a bearded Brooklyn hipster bartender. That’s what he became: complete with plaid button-down, skinny jeans, and leather suspenders. I placed him in a kombucha bar, serving fictitious REAL Kombucha. He stands in front of what appears to be a framed print of Manet’s Un Bar aux Folies-Bergère (1882). Manet is one of my favorite artists. I appreciate his sly critique of bourgeois society. As in Manet’s Folies-Bergère, it is unclear whether the image behind Lion-faced Man is a painting or a mirror image reflecting a bustling bar scene behind the viewer. The Folies-Bergère was known for providing a circus-like spectacle for its upper crust clientele. If you look carefully in the top left corner of Manet’s painting, you will see a pair of legs standing on a trapeze high above the mingling crowd. Instead of focusing attention on the spectacle as subject, Manet hones in on the bartender, who confronts the viewer with weary tolerance. Lion-faced Man’s expression is an uncanny double. Pinned to his chest is a tiny button that reads “ALIVE” – a callback to the vintage sideshow banners, but also a proclamation that demands attention.

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Manet’s Folies-Bergère Barmaid and Lionfaced Man
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Jody MacDonald, Lionfaced Man, mixed media, 30″ x 34 1/2″ x 12 1/4″, 2019

And The Conjoined Twins, the third piece in the series?

The Conjoined Twins is meant to be viewed from all angles. While I was creating these connected ladies, the lyrics from the song “Sisters” from Irving Berlin’s White Christmas kept running through my head. This song drove the conflicted narrative of the twins – are these two visually contrasting beings really as close as they seem? Details throughout the piece hint at a desire to break free from one another: a solitary dress, one set of lingerie, one pair of hose, a mirror that can only fit a single body view at one time. Hidden behind the curtain are cardboard boxes for the fictional REAL corporation products SKARA (cut) and KAPA (sever). The open boxes and strewn about instruction sheets – which parody IKEAs iconic pictographs – show how to assemble and use the products to achieve the desired outcome. The Twins, unlike the rest of the pieces in the series (where the figures are physically separated from the viewer by fences, “walls”, a cage, a bar, a boxing ring, etc.), are fully exposed to the viewer. They only have eyes for each other, though. In this scenario we are more voyeurs than viewers.

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Jody MacDonald, The Conjoined Twins (back detail), mixed media, 66″ x 24″ x 24″, 2019.

Tell me about your recent installation in Governor’s Island 4Heads residency.

Being awarded a 4heads Governors Island residency this past spring was such a gift. It allowed me to push the boundaries of my artmaking and resulted in a critical shift in my practice. The work I intended to create on Governors Island was a collection of 1:8 scale dioramas. I had planned to construct several separate pieces each populated by a community of 11” tall bat/human hybrids that would explore connections between viruses, community, urban decay, and ecology. What actually happened was a lot more exciting.

My interest in Myotis lucifugus – one of the most common bat species in North America (and one of three bat species found on Governors Island) – began while I was researching extinct species for a piece I made in 2012. I learned that in 2007, colonies of bats were being decimated by White-nose Syndrome (WNS), a fungus believed to be introduced into North American caves (first sighted in New York) through human cave explorers. WNS is highly contagious and affects bats by rousing them from hibernation. This abnormal activity burns through their energy stores, leading to shocking numbers of bats starving to death (70 – 100% of the colony). I began imagining an installation of several hundred bats in various stages of infection. What types of things might they be doing to pass the time once they awoke, unaware of their pending doom? This piece, started 7 years pre-pandemic, ended up being uncannily eerie in its timing.

Four weeks into my 16-week timeline I realized that sticking to my initial plan wasn’t going to give me enough “stage”. There were many narratives I wanted to explore and my original idea of individual dioramas wasn’t going to be the right vehicle. It became clear that I needed to flip how viewers experienced my work. Instead of creating a series of smaller works that the viewer would walk around, I needed to create one large, walk-in diorama; the viewer would stand in the center, and the piece would be happening all around them.

Jody MacDonald, 4heads Residency Proposal Sketch, ink and watercolor on paper, 9″ x 12″, 2022.

That became the installation Everywhere All Over. All Over. Everywhere.

Yes. The installation features bat figures in three stages: pre-infection (still hibernating), post-infection (dead), and currently infected (waking into a sickened, desaturated city – a ghostly New York of storefronts that no longer exist). Grouped into tableaux these “woke” bat/humans act out satirical narratives inspired by current politics, contemporary society, pandemics, and the ongoing demise of ecology and human rights.

The textile figures are internally wired with armatures for pose-ability. Multiples of miniature paper accessories are peppered throughout the installation: cellphones, assault weapons, and satirical newspapers. The newspaper articles — which include facts about WNS — are too small to read with the naked eye, but the headlines, read collectively, deliver an artist statement that outlines the inspiration for the piece. My work rewards close reading, and those patient souls who stop to read the bylines will recognize both contemporary and classic vampire names (ex. Edward Cullen, Graf Orlock).

My use of humble materials is intentional. Foam core and Styrofoam reference old-school architectural model-making and provide modular forms that serve as both environment and stage for the wired figures. The result is an immersive 14’ x 15’ walk-in diorama populated by 385 bat/human hybrids —a roomful of doll-like figures miraculously standing, walking, climbing, and generally defying gravity.

Being given the time and space to create this enchanting miniature world – so disturbingly parallel to our own – was incredible. I discovered that my characteristic studio practice with its satirical fusion of fact, fiction, art history, pop-culture, current politics (and in this case the site-specific military base history of Governors Island), is, indeed, scalable.

Jody MacDonald, Everywhere All Over. All Over. Everywhere. (installation view), mixed media, 168″ x 180″ x 96″, 2022.

Freaks, Geeks, and Strange Girls photos courtesy of the artist. Everywhere All Over. All Over. Everywhere. photos credit to Mikiodo Media