Interview with artist Jenifer K Wofford


Interview with Jenifer K Wofford, 10 July 2023

Several broken roads set within green landscapes are painted on large canvases in Bay-area based artist Jenifer K Wofford’s studio. This July she will present this new series in a solo show at Silverlens Gallery (Makati, Philippines). I met with her in her studio in June to discuss her this body of work and her solo exhibition Collapse.

"Collapse II (Limon, Costa Rica 1991)", 2015. Acrylic on canvas, 24 x 36 inches.

P: Congratulations on your upcoming show in Makati, Jenifer. You’ve had a few shows in the Philippines now and have shown different works. From curatorial projects like the Galleon Trade exhibition to series of nurse drawings and a project with your collaborators, Mail Order Brides/MOB. Can you tell us about the catalyst and inspiration for this new project?

J: I grew up around the Pacific Rim’s Ring of Fire much of my life: many of its regions are earthquake and volcano zones. So there’s my general interest in quakes and cataclysms, such as my Volcano series and my ongoing Waves series. These sites of turbulence and instability feel familiar. And I like thinking about forces of nature that are bigger than our human, petty follies.

"Downtown Santa Cruz", 2014. From the Earthquake Weather web project.

These new earthquake paintings are also attached to my obsession with the year 1989, which is a very interesting time frame to me. For instance, in my 2014 illustrated web project Earthquake Weather, I looked at the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake in the Bay Area: I tracked community memories of the moment that this quake basically reshaped the culture of the region, both abruptly and enduringly. Looking back, it was dramatic in terms of landscape, structures, people coming and going, even the rise of Silicon Valley in the Bay Area.

1989 was a politically interesting year in a broader sense, from the fall of Communism in central and eastern Europe, to the beginning of the dissolution of apartheid, to Tiananmen Square, to advances in internet technology, to further developments in the culture wars…I’ve been focused on these ruptures and breaks in a more globalized sense of art history, on times in which conversations and perceptions of art also shifted.

"Green Apple Books", 2014. From the Earthquake Weather web project.

P: Yes! I’m reminded of the 3rd Havana Biennial, the work of Rasheed Araeen and the arts journal Third Text, and the exhibition The Global Contemporary: Art Worlds After 1989 staged in 20011-12.

J: Right, exactly. I just read Douglas Coupland, Hans Ulrich Obrist and Shumon Basar’s new book The Age of Earthquakes, which isn’t actually about earthquakes, but about this age in which we are living: our immersion in (and our addiction to) social media, our computerized selves and the fragmentation of our minds. There is also The Shallows by Nicholas Carr, in which he describes what the Internet is doing to our brains, and it’s all very chilling; it makes me a little scared.

P: Can you elaborate more on this relationship between the Internet and our brains, and our relationships with others?

J: I have apprehensions about the future. Most of these are about what we’re doing to the environment, but they are also about how compromised our present-future wired brains are; we keep agreeing to do more, be online more, respond to never-ending streams of texts and emails more. We are connected, but not really: I miss the deeper friendships, sustained focus, and authentic intimacies, which are slipping away every day. I feel sad about that.

The author of The Shallows talks about the time we spend on the Internet and how this fragments our cognitive capacity at an alarming rate. Although we are adapting to it, humans really don’t evolve quickly enough to truly absorb this much information. It’s not that I am against the Internet—it isn’t inherently evil. We all know how much access, connectedness and opportunity it provides. Nor do I want to suggest that multi-tasking is bad (especially since women have been capably multitasking for centuries). There’s no denying that for many of us, though, we’re short-circuiting.

"Collapse VI (Canete, Peru 2007)", 2015. Acrylic on canvas, 36 x 48 inches.

P: How would you prefer to operate in our Internet-driven-earthquake-times?

J: I do my best to simply leave my phone behind when possible. In general, I no longer respond to messages immediately: I don’t like feeling constantly distracted, and feeling as though I am at everyone’s beck and call. I feel like these technologies pull our focus away from what—or who—is truly in front of us.

It’s not ruining life, but it does feel like it’s cheapening and shortening it a bit. When I disappear down the Internet rabbit hole, I wonder often, “What happened to my time?” It just seems that when we are doing too many things, we become compromised, in a way. There’s also the psychic exhaustion of wired culture in San Francisco; there is this hum in the air, always. Twitter headquarters is just around the corner from where I live. This energy never rests: it’s difficult to feel any respite from it, especially in the Bay Area. There’s a compulsion to be social-media-immersed at all times. I understand the merits of these things, especially as far as activism goes, but I question the merits of relentless public self-promotion without private self-reflection—this inability to establish a true connection with others or to be truly alone.

P: Many of your previous projects like the Nurse Series and Earthquake Weather depict people and are figurative in nature. In Collapse, there aren’t any humans rendered in the paintings. I’m thinking about the tragedy of earthquakes...

J: It’s only a tragedy when humans are involved.

P: Very true.

J: I’m not interested in exploiting human trauma, death, or the like, and was very deliberate about avoiding images that might be exploitative or sensationalistic in this capacity.

P: I can definitely see that the emphasis isn’t on that. In your paintings, there is more of a focus on the quiet, maybe even calmness, in the space. Can you expand on this?

"Collapse IV (Oshu, Japan 2008)", 2015. Acrylic on canvas, 48 x 64 inches.

J: I’m drawn to images of roads that are destroyed. There’s something about this notion of the human agenda being disrupted and nature reclaiming space that I like. Weirdly, there’s something peaceful. The rip and tear is a violent force, but there is quietness within the disrupted agenda. It’s not about bloody corpses, or tragedy; it’s definitely about the idea of the aftermath. There’s a short piece by Homi Bhabha, where he writes about the prefix “post-” and questions its meaning. Does it really mean “after” or is it really about the beyond, the opportunity for new growth? Post is not necessarily an actual period at the end of a sentence, in fact it rarely is. It’s about what the next continuation is. So I think my new work is somehow, about that.

Although this work does not include visual images of people, it’s still an extension of my thinking about the liminal spaces that we inhabit. It’s neither this nor that, here nor there. It probably comes from me being of mixed cultural heritage, growing up in multiple countries, of existing in between zones. Something of the “between borders” is always there in my thinking… I can’t get away from it.

P: Some of the earthquakes are somewhat identifiable: I can infer where it occurred based on the roads and surrounding buildings. However, there is something common and familiar in these landscapes. Formally, there is a shift in depth and focus in each painting, and I notice that I am unable to locate where/when the break begins, time of the quake, and other like information.

Wofford’s studio, 2015. Grid of images printed from the “Earthquake Weather” web project.

J: Yes. It’s not necessarily about specificity: I did obscure some of these details. I am interested in the idea of seismic shifts, which happen often and in various times in our world, in a generalized, constant way. Like anything, there are constant tremors, but there are particular moments where things just slide in and out of position much more dramatically. This project does comment on the Internet, but it is much more than that; it is about cognition and awareness.

Collapse is the 21st century anxiety about what we are doing to each other and to this planet that I have no answers for. And my solution is to make these earthquake paintings—they are the state of my brain, and of many of our brains.


About Jenifer K Wofford

Jenifer K Wofford is a San Francisco-based artist and educator whose work plays with notions of hybridity, authenticity and global culture, often with a humorous bent. She is also 1/3 of the Filipina-American artist trio Mail Order Brides/M.O.B.

Her work has been exhibited in the Bay Area at the Berkeley Art Museum, Oakland Museum of California, Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, Southern Exposure, and Kearny Street Workshop. Further afield, she has shown at New Image Art (Los Angeles), Wing Luke Museum (Seattle), DePaul Museum (Chicago), Manila Contemporary (Philippines), VWFA (Malaysia), and Osage Gallery (Hong Kong). Wofford’s awards include the Eureka Fellowship, the Murphy Fellowship, and grants from the Art Matters Foundation, the Center for Cultural Innovation, UCIRA, and the Pacific Rim Research Program. She has also been artist-in-residence at The Living Room, Philippines, Liguria Study Center, Italy and KinoKino, Norway. A well-known arts educator, Wofford is part-time faculty in Fine Arts and Philippine Studies at the University of San Francisco. She also teaches at UC Berkeley, San Francisco Art Institute, California College of the Arts and San Francisco State University. She holds degrees from the San Francisco Art Institute (BFA) and UC Berkeley (MFA).

About the author

Patricia Cariño is a contemporary arts and public programs curator. At the Exploratorium, she collaborates with artists and scientists to create temporary exhibitions and lecture series for adult audiences. She also works with a San Francisco art advisor to manage contemporary art collections for several clients throughout the United States. Recently, she was selected to participate as a curator in Pro Arts 2x2 Solos Series 2015, and will be working with Samuel Levi Jones to commission new work for his solo show in the early Fall.

Her research interests revolve around: exhibition history and design specifically from 1980-90s, Philippine diaspora, and social media as it relates to Contemporary Art. Curatorial projects include exhibitions and events at Burnt Oak Gallery, Heron Arts, CCA Wattis Institute for Contemporary Arts, Asian Contemporary Arts Consortium, and Oakland Museum of California. Patricia earned her BA in History of Art from the University of California, Berkeley, and a MA degree in Curatorial Practice from California College of the Arts.