Hughen/Starkweather’s Re:depiction channels intimate encounters with artworks

Requiem 12 (from the Bay Bridge Project) by Hughen/Starkweather, 2013.  [Ink, gouache and acrylic paint on paper. Courtesy of the artists and Electric Works.

Requiem 12 (from the Bay Bridge Project) by Hughen/Starkweather, 2013. [Ink, gouache and acrylic paint on paper. Courtesy of the artists and Electric Works.

It was very exciting to think about working with Hughen/Starkweather for a project as part of the Artists Drawing Club. I was curious about the way Amanda Hughen and Jennifer Starkweather work together as well as independently, but I was more interested in the role research plays in their collaborative practice. When I received the email explaining the idea that evolved into Re:depiction, I was interested in how this project,  while complimenting their past work, seemed to have a different approach.

Hughen/Starkweather wanted to interview six staff members from the Asian Art Museum and asked me to help assemble interviewees. The group included Qamar Adamjee (associate curator of South Asian art), Miriam Mills (storyteller), Shiho Sasaki (paintings conservator), John Stucky (museum librarian), Susan Williams (security guard), and Jay Xu (director). Each staff member was asked to select an artwork on view, one that was important or meaningful to them. During the interview Hughen/Starkweather asked the participant to describe the work from memory, and the conversations developed organically, including personal anecdotes and connections to the artwork.


Amanda Hughen and Jennifer Starkweather interviewing Jay Xu, director of the Asian Art Museum.

Recording these interviews, the artists had only an oral account of the work. There were no visual reproductions to inform the drawing they would create. I am still not sure if Amanda and Jennifer have seen the artworks now that their drawings are complete. These interviews inspired me to look more closely at these works. I had forged a new relationship to the artwork through the stories my colleagues told, and I am curious to see how the event will unfold, especially as Hughen/Starkweather solicit audience members to become participants in Re:depiction.

Marc Mayer: How do each of you describe your practice as Hughen/Starkweather? How has this practice changed over the ten years of working together?

Jennifer Starkweather: Our collaborative practice has evolved significantly over the past several years. In our first couple of projects, we held on tightly to certain identifiable characteristics. These early pieces comprised of a Hughen drawing layered on top of a Starkweather drawing or vice versa. After a few years, we made a commitment to collaborate in a more authentic way by literally working on the same surface of paper. What resulted was a collection of marks and colors that weave in and out of each other. We overlap, juxtapose, merge and revise each other’s marks to a point where our individual “identity” is no longer evident.

Amanda Hughen: Also what changed over time is the depth of research for each project. Our first big project together was the Market Street series titled Between Above and Below, in 2007.  We did a fair amount of research for that project, unearthing data, maps, and photographs from various sources. But with each subsequent project, the amount of research we do seems to get more and more in depth, and more personal.

MM: Have Hughen/Starkweather projects influenced your solo practices? How?

JS: The Hughen/Starkweather projects have definitely influenced my work both conceptually and aesthetically. And my personal work naturally influences how I approach our collaborative projects. It is hard to maintain defined and clear boundaries, because ultimately it is coming from the same place and the same person. What I enjoy about the collaborative projects is the surprise in the end. I never know what Amanda is going to do, even though we discuss ideas throughout the process. I like that “not-knowing.”  Sometimes I know too much about how my own work will look. Working collaboratively, however, has taught me to explore and experiment with new processes, methods and tools, which helps me to keep the learning curve on the steeper side.

AH: I agree with Jennifer. I am most interested in the unexpected marks, which is an inherent aspect of collaboration but harder to get to in one’s solo work. In order to get there in my own work, I create tight restrictions on my process, working with a single shape and color palette and finding ways to create unexpected or uncontrolled marks through tools such as rulers and screen printing.

MM: You mentioned that during Hughen/Starkweather openings people consistently ask you to identify which areas you, Amanda, or you, Jennifer, worked on, which I understand can be very frustrating. I won’t ask you that question, but what I want to know is how do you begin a drawing? What elements decide who starts which drawings?

AH: We generally start a project with time spent researching a specific subject. For our Bay Bridge project, we looked at maps, engineering drawings, data sets, photographs, and of course the bridge. We also interviewed people who were involved with the bridge, which was most interesting to both of us. We use the massive amount of information we have collected to set parameters for a body of work—specific artworks focused on certain areas or ideas. Then we dive in. We don’t discuss much regarding specific formal issues or composition—one of us simply starts each piece and hands it off to the other. We get together and look at the works, discuss them, and hand them off to continue working on them.

We do not make marks together in the same room. We have separate studios, in different neighborhoods in the city. We work alone on each piece, then get together to look and discuss, then separate again to continue working.

It is exciting to have half-finished works handed over and to solve the problem, or begin something and not know how it will end up. There is a huge amount of trust and respect involved.

MM: What is your project for the Artists Drawing Club? How did the idea come about?

JS: Our project is titled Re:depiction. To begin, six staff members from the Asian Art Museum each selected an artwork on view in the museum and described the piece to us in an interview. The staff members included a wide range of jobs, from a night security guard to the director of the museum. We held the interviews at the museum, and although we had planned questions in advance, the conversations meandered, frequently becoming more about the personal connection the interviewee had to the artwork.

After we had completed the six interviews, we created a sound piece and an abstract work on paper for each interview. On the night of the event, each abstract work will be viewed alongside its accompanying sound piece from the interview.

AH: We came up with this idea because we are interested in the personal stories behind a person’s relationship with an object. Listening to someone tell a story about the Bay Bridge (our most recent project) or about a Korean vase helps us understand and get to know the subject we are exploring and investigating through a unique and personal lens. In Re:depiction, we are intrigued with how a viewer looks at a favorite work of art and how personal experiences shape their vision and interpretation of it.

It was interesting how each interview tended to veer away from the formal (color, texture, shape) and toward the personal (the relationship between the interviewee and the chosen object).

JS: This more social aspect of our work developed when we were working on the Bay Bridget project. We began to understand how passionate the architects, engineers, designers and others were about the structure. When we first began planning our project for the Asian Art Museum, we knew that some aspect of storytelling would be essential to highlight the connection between object and person.

Shiho Sasaki, Album of Lacquer by Hughen/Starkweather. 2014. Archival pigment print, edition of 3, 72x36 inches. Courtesy of the artists and Electric Works.

Shiho Sasaki, Album of Lacquer by Hughen/Starkweather. 2014. Archival pigment print, edition of 3, 72×36 inches. Courtesy of the artists and Electric Works.

MM: What were some of the highlights in the interviews with museum staff? Can you tell me how your relationship with the interviewees developed as you started working on the drawings? What was it like listening to their words while making the work? Are there phrases or ideas that still stick with you?

JS: When listening to the staff members speak about a work of art, I was struck most by the love, passion and excitement they felt. I found myself becoming immersed in a story as it unraveled.  I noticed that most interviewees began by visually describing the work of art, then, gradually moved into telling a personal story about the piece, how they felt about it, what resonated with them and what it reminded them of. I also noticed that the cadence of their voice slowed down as they grappled to find the words to describe an ephemeral experience rather than a visual one.

AH: One of the interviewees told a story about a temple near where she grew up in Japan. As a young child she would press her cheek in reverie against the beautiful reddish lacquered surfaces of the inside of the temple. In her early teens, they replaced the wood shutters in the temple with glass windows, and as a result the lacquered interior faded to dull wood. A few years later she found a spot on the back of a shelf that had been untouched by light and was still the beautiful reddish lacquer, discovering that her memory of the beautiful surface had not been a dream after all.

JS: I revisited the words as I began to make the work, highlighting visual details that stuck out, like textures, shapes or colors. As with many of our projects, we are often overwhelmed by the information that we have. At a certain point, it can become more of a hinder than help. I had to focus less on the descriptive details and more on how I would interpret them. Working spontaneously and immediately helped me to dive in rather than treading too carefully around words and ideas.

MM: Now that the project is in process and your drawings are finished, it is clear to me that translation and interpretation are at the core of this project. Can you discuss the act of translation? How does it manifest through Re:depiction?

AH: This project is a series of translations or “redepictions.” When viewing an artwork, each of us brings our own histories, preconceptions, ideas and interests to how we interpret a work. Through this project, we examine this process and take it to a slightly ridiculous end. It becomes a perpetuating circle of interpretation and translation. There is something about attempting to recreate an artwork just from verbal description, and what results is focusing on the personal relationship the viewer has with that work of art, their own ideas and interests. On the night of the event, the viewer closes the loop of interpretation as they listen to the words of the interviewee, look at our depiction, and then find the original artwork in the museum.

JS: I think that translation is inherent to the creative process. The artist’s role is to communicate a feeling, emotion, concept or belief into a visual language—shapes, colors, textures, space. I have always been interested in maps and how they translate a three-dimensional space into dots, lines and dashes. It is a two-dimensional picture that evokes space, memory and narrative. Maps have been an important piece of source material for many of our collaborations. In previous projects, we have been interested in how to translate a space or place into an abstract work by reinterpreting shapes and forms. A body of water becomes a series of parallel lines, or a BART station is rendered as a pattern of connecting triangles. This project was different in many ways. Rather than working from the built environment, we worked with words, memories and experiences. But what is similar is the way we sifted through information and ideas to find the parts of stories that resonated with us.

MM: Risk is part of the Artists Drawing Club series. What do you want to achieve through Re:depiction? What do you want to take away from this experience? What do you want audience members to experience during this event?

AH: It will be interesting to see how people will participate on the night of the event. Will they simply looking at our artworks? Will they put on the headphones and listen to the accompanying sound piece? Will they use the map to find the original works that were described to us? Will they tell us about their own memory of a work of art? We want to offer audience members the opportunity to consider a work that has resonated with them. As in all art-viewing, it is up to the viewer to take the opportunity, or not.


Meet the artists live at the next Artist Drawing Club event on May 22nd.