Artist Profiles | Visual Arts

A Slight Cut to the Eye: The Art & Life of Jann Haworth

Photo by Dallas Graham

The first piece could easily be overlooked. It’s an upholstered pair of what the British call “inverted commas,” but Americans call quotation marks. Its mate, the last piece, closes the quotation, marking the 20 works in between as something of a statement. “It’s my nod to Postmodernism,” quips the artist, Jann Haworth. It’s also a quintessential Pop Art gesture, something that comes naturally to one of the few women who made a name for herself in that trans-Atlantic art movement. In Hollywood, where she was born, the aesthetic maxim is, “If you want to send a message, call Western Union.” But a statement isn’t the same as a message. For an artist who knew instinctively that if she was to be an artist at all she must be a woman first, then an artist, the most important task is to declare that she exists, and has seen things she wants us to see, too. It’s Pop with content, but she’s not about to let that spoil the fun.

Jann Haworth’s career began with a quandary most will face only in their dreams. From art school she went straight to the top, accepted by a prestigious gallery at 20 and meeting the greats of her day. Then she collaborated on one of the best-known icons of an era forever defined by graphic images and designs like the peace sign, psychedelic posters, and paisley. Haworth and her partner gave an obscure British cultural reference the visual identity it needed to resonate with a worldwide audience. Without the album cover she and her partner devised, it’s unlikely anyone would have known what to make of a name like Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Heart’s Club Band.

Fortunately, Haworth had witnessed artistic success up close even earlier. Her father, Ted Haworth, was an Oscar-winning art director whose many film credits included the cult classic Invasion of the Body Snatchers. In addition to a lifelong way of seeing the world cinematically, he gave her an example of lifelong dedication to craftsmanship that transcends the accidents of celebrity. It was another of his films, Jeremiah Johnson, that first introduced Hollywood’s progressive elite to Utah, setting in motion one strand of a braid of events that, years later, would result in his daughter locating her studio in Sundance, where she has now lived and worked for thirty years.

“Art History of the 20 C”

One thing that makes Sundance special to her is the way the light she works by is reflected off snow. This level of concern for the materials she works with is typical of artists, but Haworth argues that as a woman she is more aware of, more interested in, and ultimately more sensitive to materials than most male artists. It’s a characteristic that emerged when she took advantage of her early success to seek an alternative to the masculine domination of art education and practice. Just as women use words — the components that lent character to language — differently than do men, so women, if they wish to own the great genres of art — landscape, portrait, nude, and still-life — must also approach them in their own way. It’s something she only learned when she tried to combine her artistic success with the traditional roles of mother and housekeeper. After the emotional and intellectual violence of the ensuing collision, she found a way to adapt women’s traditional solutions to making art. Paradoxically, it was falling from grace that allowed her to find her true voice.

“Women’s connection to children and families is visceral,” she explains. “It makes us levelers, makers of connections rather than ladders we could climb up. We synthesize small pieces well. We excel in collage: cooking, sewing, quilt making.” Looking around at her one-person show at the Gallery at the Main, one sees her point made physically: a quilt called “Scheherazade,” based on the famous collection of Arabic tales, when finished will include 1,001 graduated squares that carry the storyteller to safety. “Utah Women,” an ensemble of conceptual portraits, uses a single format and collaged contributions from the subjects to capture both their individuality and what they share in common. Throughout, materials are as carefully chosen for individual characteristics as for their combined effect.

Haworth’s training was in graphic design and her instincts are those of an illustrator. That, combined with her infectious humor and disregard for sacred cows and stuffed shirts alike, keeps her work popular and her messages palatable. She also took the trouble to work up a lively patter that dances adroitly across the surface of her history and her present, not avoiding the inevitable questions about her fifteen minutes of fame, but delivering answers that surprise and disarm her interlocutor into letting her talk about her current work. How great was it to collaborate with the incomparable Beatles? Well, the studio was tiny and they weren’t much help. Is Paul dead or alive? He hints even he’s not sure. Reaching into a box of teaching materials, she pulls out the battered, broken parts of a surprisingly flimsy gramophone she was awarded in 1967. Orson Welles won half an Oscar for Citizen Kane; she won half a Grammy for signaling that rock ’n’ roll was ready to play with the grown-ups.

 

“Art Woman Unmasked @ 90”

 

A few minutes of this and you’d follow her anywhere. Of course spoon-feeding the press a predigested story is a safe way to control what gets written about her — something every artist would like to do. Her boundaries are subtle, but still there as she tells how her husband “at that time” — she is scrupulous never to refer to Peter Blake without locating him firmly in her past — moved to the wild north of Britain to found the Brotherhood of Ruralists. Brotherhood is another historical joke, but one that must have smarted even then. After their marriage ended, an event she adroitly appears to talk about without saying anything specific, she entered a cloudy decade that cleared to find her living and working in Sundance, but exhibiting and selling in Europe.

Haworth’s chapter on Sundance is also complex, including her father’s history and her collaboration with her husband — at this time — the writer Richard Severy. Primarily, though, she credits Robert Hughes, the Australian-born art critic for Time magazine, with asserting that an artist’s vision must be renewed in the wilderness. While she knows that Hughes means it as a metaphor for escape from social pressure, in Utah she found wilderness in the fullest sense, including the transcendent landscape Hughes credited, in American Visions, his influential 1997 survey of American art, with creating the sense of manifest destiny and spiritual purpose that enabled Americans to make, late in the twentieth century, the world’s most influential art.

“Nudie Cohen: Eat My Dust”

As for her remaining attachment to Europe, she entertains a suggestion that leaving home may be more important than the direction one travels. But ultimately she disagrees. “In Europe, when you go to an art gallery, you pass down a street of old buildings that are all alike. Inside the gallery may be modern, but the outside is old. When you look out, you see tradition and conformism. But here I am, at my first show in Utah, and look around us.” She gestures out the airy, glass-walled space of the City Library toward buildings marked by the range of their styles. More to her point, even the relatively short drive from here to her home entails journeying through an epoch of time and environmental consciousness.

“Minnie after her divorce and before she knew she was pregnant”

“It’s a great privilege leaving hierarchical Great Britain, where cynicism rules out possibility. When I’m here, I sometimes think I’d be happier there, but as soon as I’m back I start feeling claustrophobic. Coming to America, with its ragged individualism, constructive approach, and palpable optimism gives a slight cut to the eye. I admire the level of language here, the caliber of public speaking. I can see things fresh, like on holiday.”

Haworth’s art begins in specifics, like the difference between a man’s story and one belonging to a woman. It’s not that one is truer than the other: just that one has been told and retold, while the other is just beginning to be heard. Making issues count requires specific details: on an apron stretched over a frame meant for painter’s canvas, she has printed a comic strip recounting the plight of a young woman striving to become an artist. In one scene the protagonist wins a scholarship to art school, but her father, meaning well, forces her to take business classes instead. It’s a true story about Haworth’s own mother, but it could be any parent, any child.

As befits her coming-of-age in a more idealistic time, Haworth expects an audience to think. For her, art is a democratic activity: a dialogue in which the artist speaks to everyone. It upsets her that a film depicting the animated Mickey Mouse dying in the trenches of World War I was found too disturbing, but millions of real human beings continue to go through similar ordeals in real life. Watching adults treat children like aliens, as if what’s done to them won’t affect what they become, she says, “It’s important to see the child as a part of the adult.” Seeing, which precedes thinking and too often precludes it, is something she clearly thinks art can and should influence. On the library’s walls, it’s Minnie, not Mickey, who’s in trouble, and she is “only” pregnant. But the story she illustrates concerns the poignant contingency of women’s lives. For years she’s a child, followed by a moment of freedom and seemingly limitless possibilities. There’s a youthful emergence — “caterpillar to butterfly” — and then along comes a baby, and she’s stuck back in that primal drama, only playing the other role.

Some things are too important to make somber. In her art as in her life, Haworth seemingly never passes up a chance to leaven our mortally serious predicament with healthy disrespect. Her current series of works, which look like paintings but are also corsets, freely mix fashion, theater, music, film and animation. Each is provocatively both a figure done in an identifiable style and a piece of exotic lingerie. They also combine materials like vinyl, fabric, and found objects, taking Pop one step beyond itself and combining it with one of its offspring, Assemblage, to inject some life into a medium many thought was finished. Continuing her revision — the reward for staying productive when others have given out is you get the last word — one of the more colorful corsets is a tribute to Nudie Cohen, hardly a hero to doctrinaire Feminists, and two celebrate the sexual ambiguity of Hedwig — he or she of the angry inch — one from in front and one from behind.

Jann Haworth admits that she makes art about art. She enjoys putting fine art next to crafts and something as trashy as plastic, but paradoxically ends up giving Pop some class. To the tired claim that art is dead, or that form trumps content, she replies with a rhetorical flourish: “Just because you haven’t any ideas doesn’t mean there aren’t any. We [women artists] haven’t spoken yet!” For her, the point of art is to be forced out of our selves by listening to someone else. Describing her own surprise at discovering, after leaving the cosseted life of a middle class girl, that women aren’t equal, she diagrams a parallel equation. If art is going to mean as much to us as the bad things in life, it needs to be just as surprising.

Jann Haworth’s Pop Plastique, an exhibit of new works, is on exhibit at The Gallery at Library Square through July 26. More of her work can be seen at her website: www.jannhaworth.com

Geoff Wichert has degrees in critical writing and creative nonfiction. He writes about art to settle the arguments going on in his head.

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