Jacci Den Hartog

Born in Pella, Iowa, in 1962, Jacci Den Hartog has lived and worked primarily in Southern California since the mid-1980s when she completed her MFA in sculpture at the Claremont Graduate University. For over three decades, Den Hartog has developed a material language that challenges the conventions of landscape-related art and image-making in and beyond the American west. 

In the 1980s, Den Hartog began experimenting with materials such as rubber, latex, plaster, and wire, creating abstract “rubber flowers” along with constructions of cast beach balls, industrial piping, and hand-knotted wire nets. She also embarked on a more representational sculptural series, most fully realized as her widely noted 1991 exhibition Three Rings at Security Pacific Gallery. As the title suggests, the exhibition presented three circular installations: in the center, paper silhouettes of Victorian-era circus images of caged elephants formed a train around a carnivalesque plinth holding a small monitor, which displayed a video of the foot of a performing elephant spinning; hacked-off cast-rubber elephant trunks comprised a circle on one side of the central train; and on the other side of the train and platform stood five identical plaster sculptures of dropped pants. The sense of the sculptures “endlessly rotating,” particularly in the train, which links only to itself like some kind of ouroboros, Den Hartog explains, “allude[d] to the brutality and acts of violence perpetrated against elephants in the circus.” These elephants are flattened from living creatures into common fare for repetitive entertainment, the results of which are suggested by the aggression of various sculptural truncations.

Even as Den Hartog’s work has drifted from figurative references, she’s continuously pursued her interest in the ethics of representation—how art codifies or revises the relations between people, and between the human and more-than-human worlds. Developing a post-Minimalist vernacular refreshed through an engagement and critique with historical image-making, feminist practice, and ecological attention, Den Hartog proposes a phenomenology of the environment.

Fluid Dynamics (1992) at Sue Spaid Fine Art represented a kind of transition from Three Rings to the themes that have occupied Den Hartog to the present. Using repeated casts of pachyderms, castles, and dropped pants melded with quasi-cartoonish geologies, she pushed towards semi-abstraction by way of both seriality and the effacing effects of poured rubber. A year later, also at Sue Spaid, Hill and Dale would depict fog, mountains, and rivers more directly, while still maintaining an indeterminacy, giving gravity significant power in shaping the works. Several sculptures suggested imaginary and actual sites, like Never Land or Cosmic Milk Mountain

Den Hartog seeks a kind of landscape sculpture. By transmuting painterly perspectives and motifs into 3D objects, she does away with the fixed gaze, uncoupling the genre’s content from its traditionally romanticized connotations. She explains: “I wanted to make sculpture that gave the viewer a complex space in which to travel, to enter into, and to experience the landscape through phenomena.”

Many critics in the 1990s tied Den Hartog’s work to Sung, Ming, and Yung Dynasty landscape paintings. She studied them extensively, noting that they “gave me a great deal to consider cultural ideas about how landscapes are depicted and how those affect attitudes towards the shaping of built landscape spaces.” Such explorations make themselves felt in her late-90s shows at Christopher Grimes Gallery with their mountain-like wall-mounted sculptures; she was included in the group show Hard-Boiled Wonderland (2001) at Cal State LA’s Luckman Gallery, which featured local artists influenced by traditional Asian arts. Den Hartog also situated her practice more contemporaneously, citing Earthworks, Light and Space art, and the post-Minimalisms of Robert Morris, Linda Benglis, and Eva Hesse. Her work, she says, “moves back and forth between  representation and abstraction, the sensorial experience and the idea,” adding that, “if we saw it all at the same time it would be similar to a hallucination.” In this way, her sculptures become about “seeing time.”

Throughout the 2000s, Den Hartog dove deeper into “anti-gravity,” suspending and cantilevering her wave-like sculptures from the wall as in her Host & Guest Exchanging Places, a 2004 sculpture of two aquatic bodies seemingly flowing into one another from nowhere and reaching well into the Christopher Grimes Gallery space. However, her  unusual juxtapositions of “natural” forms with rigid architectures and her gestures of displacement and artifice spoke back to the real: With Part of The Tide (2004), for example, Den Hartog described its insistent linearity as “about the repeating rhythm of the tide and the elusive edge where land and water meet, and that was very Southern California to me.”

Most recently, Den Hartog has been producing objects that operate at the interstices of the urban and extra-urban, the abstract and the narrative. Pulling upon forms from not only natural waterfalls, but also underground pipes and unseen infrastructure, while conceptually imbricating them with news accounts of children rescued from sewers or caves, she bridges the architectonic, the landscape, and the folkloric. For the presentation Gilded Space at STARS in 2022, she created a new series of sculptures ranging from just over a foot to over four feet tall, as well as drawings. Starting with a steel grid armature, she layered aqua resin and fiberglass cloth, which she further distorted with Flashe and acrylic paints, building upon her previous attempts to freeze time through the seeming denial of gravity. The sculptures challenged the boundaries of constructed environments and natural processes. As she explained, “The process of dismantling the grid system that I set up to work within has given me a way to find an expansive space within sculpture to explore.” 

Jacci Den Hartog (b. 1962, Iowa) lives and works in Los Angeles. She has presented solo exhibitions at Rosamund Felsen Gallery, Los Angeles (2015, 2012, 2010); The Suburban, Chicago (with Mary Heilmann, 2012); Christopher Grimes Gallery, Los Angeles (2004, 2002, 2000, 1997, 1996); Nicole Klagsbrun Gallery, New York (1999); and Sue Spaid Fine Art, Los Angeles (1993, 1993, 1991). Institutional solo exhibitions include Pasadena City College (2020), The Contemporary Arts Center, Cincinnati (2000), San Francisco Art Institute (1998), and White Columns, New York (1995). Her work is in the permanent collections of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Museum of Contemporary Art Los Angeles, Nora Eccles Harrison Museum of Art, Orange County Museum of Art, Portland Art Museum, Santa Barbara Museum of Art, and San Diego Museum of Contemporary Art, among others.

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