Sarah Gjertson in Conversation with Maria Elena Buszek

As part of the exhibition F*Bomb, on view at the Vicki Myhren Gallery April 4 through May 5, 2024, art historian Maria Elena Buszek interviewed artist Sarah Gjertson, discussing Gjertson’s art practice and the themes and artistic lineages explored in the show. Read the interview below.

Sarah Gjertson
Maria Elena Buszek

Maria Elena Buszek: This “retrospective” is unusual in that it includes not just your own work, but that of your influences, mentors, and students: what was the impetus for organizing it this way?

Sarah Gjertson: I think the idea for an exhibition in my honor has some origins, truthfully, with my colleague, Deborah Howard, with whom I’ve had an affinity around feminist art and some other things. I think she felt it was important to acknowledge my contribution DU in the time that I’ve been there, and Geoffrey Shamos approached me with this idea about having a show in the Vicki Myhren Gallery. It’s a very lovely gesture and heartwarming to have that kind of nod from the institution and the school around your own work, specifically. As faculty, we’re focused on teaching and our interactions with our students, so our work is often…somewhere else!

I was so flattered, but I also felt like it was an opportunity to extend the idea a little bit more. As wonderful as it would be to see my work over so much time, it’s also terrifying to think that I’ve been making work for decades—just talking about it in those terms is staggering. And so much of what I’ve learned as an artist is informed by my experience as a student, and also my experience with my own students. So, it seemed like a really rich opportunity to build the sense of lineage across decades and across people: my own mentors, my own artist influences, and my own students. Hopefully, there’ll be a rich conversation about connections between people across time and our impacts on each other. I feel humbled, grateful, and excited to have the opportunity bring these worlds together.

Maria Elena Buszek: Do you feel like this came out of your own experience as a student? As a feminist? I’m always curious as to how these kinds of committed community practices come out of our studies.

Sarah Gjertson: Well, there’s the worn-out euphemism that hindsight is 20/20. I don’t think I realized at the time how formative those connections were with the women faculty that I worked with. The ways that they would go out of their way for me weren’t obvious at the time: even simple conversations that just might be interpersonal interactions were really pivotal to my thinking about my experience as a artist, as a woman, and a feminist. All those things! But now, years later, I have the great gift of being able to acknowledge those contributions and how important they were. I can only surmise that maybe my students someday will have that hindsight recollection about how meaningful their relationships were with their faculty once they’ve advanced to their professional stages.

Maria Elena Buszek: Has it been interesting seeing those worlds collide in this show, in terms of creating a checklist of your mentors and heroes, and then your former students and mentees?

Sarah Gjertson: I’m not sure the word “collide” feels right. I feel like it’s symbiosis, it’s a bloodline, it’s a lineage. I would hope that there’s something about this show and how it’s been organized that models what I think of as honorable feminist behavior: it’s an opportunity to acknowledge the lineage that came before, but also the lineage that comes after.

I wouldn’t be doing what I do or think about the ways that I do it if it hadn’t been modeled for me at some point. And again, even as a graduate student I didn’t quite recognize the kind of mycelial connection between those people. But it comes through in what I do and what I teach in ways that are not conscious. I don’t consciously think, for example: “Oh, I am going to model Kitty Ross’s behavior of advising and talking about conceptual meaning of materials at this moment.” It just has become holistically part of who I am. But at the same time, it would be disingenuous to not recognize that knowledge that was so formative to me and how I’ve carried it forward with my own students.

There’s also something about the DIY, punk-rock ethos about walking your talk. While academic contexts can be mired in all kinds of other things, it’s definitely something I’ve tried to honor in myself, in my work, and certainly with my students.

Maria Elena Buszek: Well, I’m not surprised that’s foremost in your mind in terms of organizing the show, because I feel like so much of your work as an artist has been about history, and it’s been about community, going all the way back to your work that I’ve seen from the 1990s. To my mind, your work has always been about history and community—whether it’s your aesthetics, or your use of objects or archives—and where you have situated yourself in relation to both.

Sarah Gjertson: I wouldn’t disagree. I think, though, that there’s been something in my practice about uncovering voices in communities: either those in which I have direct exposure or experience, or those in which I’m peripheral. I’m just very deeply curious. It doesn’t feel appropriate to say the work’s not about me, because of course, it wouldn’t exist without my intersection with those things. But the community piece, especially with the beauty parlor projects, and digging into some of the history of women in mining sites in Colorado, the study of science and hysteria—to uncover the experience of women and then trying to make that voice visible or palpable. That’s not maybe directly about me in this moment of time, but it’s about the experience of women in whatever their time period might be in American culture. My own voice/observations as a woman in this culture at particular times is hopefully evident in the work.

Gjertson, Embedded (For Eula), 2017, oil based solar plate monoprint.
Gjertson, Holly Street Hair Dryers, 2005-2007, inkjet print from 35 mm negative.
Gjertson, Ronnie, 2005-2007, inkjet print from 35 mm negative.

Maria Elena Buszek: There’s also a great amount of humor in your work. I mean, Psychoanalyst Trip-Dick (2003-2004) is very serious commentary on the ways that women’s melancholy or dissatisfaction was pathologized by early psychoanalysts, but the centerpiece of that installation are these terrifying, but kind of funny, historic vibrators that the audience was invited to set off. Or the “runaway bride” Super 8 film from Married With Children…Or Not (2010-2011) about ways women are expected to again feel dissatisfied—in this case, with choices that go beyond the nuclear family, heterosexuality, etcetera. But that you included these kind of slapstick scenes is wonderful. Or, the very loving photographs that you created in The Parlor Project (2005-2007) are juxtaposed with objects that you created out of vintage curlers or the box of fake fingernails. There’s a comedy that you bring to your critique or to your community practices.

Gjertson, Psychoanalyst Trip-Dick, 2003-2004, installation of three portraits (dressmaker pins, foam dots, styrofoam, shadowbox frames) and three wired antique vibrators mounted in vitrines.

Sarah Gjertson: Yeah, absolutely. I think humor is such a cathartic place to deal with heavy, dark histories that are often not of our own making. Humor is a way to access difficult discussions and enable people really to have a dialogue about it.

Maria Elena Buszek: It’s disarming! When it comes to challenging subjects, your humor creates a window for understanding.

Sarah Gjertson: I think there’s something strategic about it from an art making practice. You’re making space for people to enter the work from a position that is disarming, where the humor is kind of like a short circuit.

Maria Elena Buszek: There’s also the frequency of (literal) feeling in much of your work: it’s often sensuous and sensorial, and you have to literally feel it to understand it.

Sarah Gjertson: That part is so interesting to me, not just as an artist, but as a viewer of art and an appreciator of materiality and objects. Being able to engage with art directly isn’t something we get an opportunity to do very often. Usually, it’s this mediated experience in a museum or gallery where something is remote and not touchable: there are sensors, alarms go off, there’s this hierarchy of experience. And I really, really enjoy when I get to offer that opportunity for people to pick something up, or to page through something, or to have that that physical experience with something. It is another place of meaning making.

Gjertson, From Touch I Learned, 2017, handmade velvet book, antique desk and chair.

Maria Elena Buszek: And I love that you so frequently choose things that are— for better or for worse—a part of many women’s everyday lives. Whether it’s clothing or fake fingernails or dolls, you’re giving access to these feminine-coded things to everybody. These things are oftentimes locked away in women’s spaces, and you’re asking folks for whom these things aren’t a part of their existence to understand their beauty or their humor or their absurdity.

I’m thinking all the way back to something like Clouds (2000-2001), which is a piece that I love. From checking the date, it occurred to me that this was the very moment that the internet was starting to become massive and popular, and the “upskirt photography” phenomenon of amateur photographers and the paparazzi was this new, shocking way of like humiliating women through circulating these non-consenting photographs. Here, it’s like you’re giving your audience this literal upskirt perspective under a sky of petticoat “clouds,” but denying them what was supposed to be the naughty payoff. At the same time, you were also asking them to think about the magic and the beauty of these ridiculous, uncomfortable petticoats that were (and are) part of many women’s youth. There was so much happening there, and it was so elegantly and simply done.

Sarah Gjertson: Those types of synchronicities happen, and you don’t know until you look back. That piece was about trying to physically create the space around a theory of fetishism that was developed by men, and fascinating from a psychological standpoint, but as a very surface level way of trying to make an experience or even sexual attraction neurotic, with all the other baggage that comes with that. But to physically create a space where someone is walking into a room, looking up at these mesmerizing, twirling skirts on a shiny black patent leather floor and saying you might have a choice of your experience: this is what this psychoanalytic theory is going to tell you conclusively happens to people in this moment, but what if it’s a million other things, too, and the space is for people to define that for themselves.

Gjertson, Clouds, 2000-2001, ten motorized crinolines mounted on the ceiling, shiny black vinyl flooring

Maria Elena Buszek: It’s a very simple installation that was somehow so many other things. It didn’t just call out a strictly binary way of reading the scene from a gendered, heterosexual perspective because it’s the kind of fetishized clothing that signifies in a different way to queer and trans folks. And our both coming out of Riot Grrrl and the feminist punk of the ‘80s and ‘90s, those also were costumes that we were seeking out in thrift stores that we maybe were forced into as little girls by our mothers or grandmothers. But then when we were grown…

Sarah Gjertson: …we put on combat boots.

Maria Elena Buszek: …exactly! And then we’re all redefining them; seeking them out but trying to undermine the oppressive femininity that they represented to us, and that we now felt empowered to undermine.

Sarah Gjertson: There are so many scripts that are out there in culture that are scrutinizing women’s bodies, but then also cause women to scrutinize their own bodies, and it’s really complicated: how much are you buying into all of that stereotyping? How much can you subvert it? Can you borrow these pieces of it and create some other hybrid identity for yourself. And that’s an ongoing, continual kind of recycling of all of those codes of gender and femininity. It’s all performance, ultimately. But you know, how you own it for yourself can be a very liberating and empowering place.

Maria Elena Buszek: I’m curious about how you take these themes and incorporate them into your classroom. Directly and indirectly, so much of what’s happening in this show is a reflection of you as an educator, as well as a visual artist. Have you found opportunities to apply these sorts of strategies, or have these kinds of conversations in your classrooms?

Sarah Gjertson: In my studio classes, I think the place where it has been most clearly channeled is a class called Open Media Studio. It’s a class where I ask students to do a bit of research about their topic. We do three primary projects: on a person, on a place, and then we do a project on empathy. But the research portion ends up informing a material choice, and that’s modeled off my practice pretty directly. But what it ended up doing—or at least the feedback that I get from students about it—is it asks them to think about material as agency and using material as a voice. That means that it extends outside those “traditional boundaries” of “this is printmaking, this is painting, this is photo, this is sculpture,” whatever it is, breaks down all of that, and focuses on what the material is telling me as a viewer. What is the form of how that material has been manipulated telling me? How can I use it as a dialogical device? So that’s probably the most direct way that I can see my processes as an artist coming through in my teaching.

Maria Elena Buszek: Maybe this is a good place to ask what you hope this show will demonstrate about your history as a member of the DU faculty: maybe a kind of “PS” to the years that you’ve functioned here as a maker and as an educator and as a colleague?

Sarah Gjertson: That’s a big question with…gosh, probably a day’s worth of answers. I think it primarily comes from a position of gratitude. Gratitude for my own mentors for how I was able to learn and grow as their student—and that didn’t stop the entire time I was an educator. I always felt like I could either do things better, or I could rethink things or retool things. I always felt a sense of responsibility to what I was doing as an artist, and what I was trying to model for my students. The desire to validate their voice, I think, has been enormous.

And there’s a piece of gratitude with that, too, because we’re sharing this moment in time, the things that we care about, and the things that we’re observing about the world around us, and how do we use art to talk about those things? How do we locate the personal within that context of our world and talk about those things? So, there’s the gratitude for everything I’ve learned—and a recognition that I’m still learning. Let’s just say that’s like the Golden Fleece of the academic sphere, to get to have those moments. And you can’t force them, you can’t create them, you can’t construct them. They are the serendipity that happens in this shared place in time.

Even as I transition out of academia, it’s been an invigorating place. And those relationships that I’ve had with both my mentors and with my students are life changing, I’m immensely, immensely grateful.

F*Bomb will be on view at the Vicki Myhren Gallery through May 5. We are open Tuesday–Sunday, 12–5 PM.