UCR Magazine The Magazine of UC Riverside

Spring 2015

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Jim Isermann on Creating Public Art

The UCR professor talks about living in Palm Springs, his love for California design, and how his Wisconsin childhood influenced his work

Lilledeshan Bose

UCR’s Genomics Building, erected in 2010, was built to house research for a contemporary science. The Institute for Integrative Genome Biology Director Natasha Raikhel was adamant that its exteriors would showcase contemporary art. She called on Jim Isermann, professor of art and a longtime creator of large public art installations, to collaborate on the piece while the building was still being planned.

Isermann, who has large-scale sculptures in Europe, New York, Dallas and Los Angeles, met with Raikhel and some of her researchers in 2004 to look at the way plant biology is rendered. “The artwork is a conflation of my preconception of molecular illustration and the state-of-the-art computer rendering done at UCR. That ties to the specific site of the building’s portico and atrium,” Isermann said. “The work consists of a single module, in right- and left-hand types, scaled to the grid of the building’s metal skin.”

Today, the two spectacular arrangements of red, orange, yellow and silver powder-coated steel and aluminum modules welcome researchers to the building. One grouping of 65 modules that fills an exterior wall near the main entrance and a vertical array of 15 modules that rises more than 20 feet from the atrium floor. At night, cool LED lights embedded in the folded-metal project turn the yellow pieces green.

The two installations features two sets of spirals, which Isermann said relate to his “sustaining interest in geometric abstraction and its relationship to repetition and pattern.”

Creating public art — especially at UCR — is also very important to Isermann. “[The sculpture is] on the campus where I teach,” he said. “The installation is made for the person who goes to work in the building every day. The pattern is complex enough that you don’t recognize what is going on in one viewing. It’s not initially read as art; it’s read as something integral to the building.”

Here, Isermann, who lives in Palm Springs, talks about living in Inland Southern California, his art practice and his love for industrial design.

Jim Isermann stands before his sculpture at the Genomics Building. photo by Carrie Rosema

Jim Isermann stands before his sculpture at the Genomics Building. Photo by Carrie Rosema

On making his home in the desert

Twenty years ago I [came] to Palm Springs to thrift shop. [When I saw] the Donald Wexler prefabricated steel and glass houses, it was love at first sight. In 1997 my house went on the market. It looked abandoned: peeling paint, dead landscape, frozen vertical blinds and a car on blocks in the driveway. Underneath the shag carpet, flocked wallpaper and wood paneling the light gage galvanized steel structure was totally intact. It took me about two years of weekends to strip and restore every surface of the house.

On his working in his studio and his art practice

I spend part of everyday in my studio. Until [I moved to this house] I always lived in my studio. Now I get to walk past the pool on the way to my studio. My practice is divided between labor-intensive studio work for gallery and museum exhibitions, and the digital design and oversight of commissioned projects that employ commercial manufacturing processes.

My studio has enough room for modestly scaled projects, model making, digital design and schematics. The wall of glass faces north. Happily, since I cannot see into the studio from the house I do not have to pick up after myself.

On how living in California informed his aesthetic

I grew up in Wisconsin and moved to California in 1978 to attend grad school at CalArts.  Everything I associated with California — stucco, sculpted bushes, low flat houses, indoor-outdoor living — had everything to do with the mid-century building boom.

My design education was in large part informed from flea markets, swap meets and thrift shopping. Unlike in Wisconsin, Californians seem perfectly happy to redecorate and get rid of everything. I developed a theory that at about the time things began to appear in thrift stores was just before their design would come back into style.  So at that moment the object sat on the edge of in and out of style, desirable and undesirable, ugly and beautiful.

In the late ’70s there were few to no books or guides on mid-century design. I learned through collection and comparison, and I became equally interested in the knock offs of high-end design and the ultimate decline as the air of optimism escaped from the balloon of modernism as it failed to solve all of our problems.

My artistic output has chronicled the conflation of post-war industrial design and fine art through popular culture. I have maintained an unflagging belief in the beauty of utilitarian design. I have made work that is unashamedly beautiful, a beauty integral to the limitations and specific characteristics of fabrication.  In the last 15 years I have been utilizing digital technology to design elements for commercial manufacture.  My work has matured from didactic representations of the failure of modernism to the physical embodiment of pure design.

Jim Isermann's "Untitled (Cougar Pride)," 2014. Made with cast concrete panels with glass aggregate,  is at the southwest corner of TDECU Stadium at the University of Houston.

Jim Isermann’s “Untitled (Cougar Pride),” 2014. Made with cast concrete panels with glass aggregate, the work is at the southwest corner of TDECU Stadium at the University of Houston.

On his love for industrial design

I grew up in a 1922 prairie house in Wisconsin. Its very economic and — for its time — modern logic of space made a basic and profound impression on my sensibilities. I can also remember starring at drapery as a child and being fascinated by being able to locate the module and repetition in the printed or woven pattern.

I often thought of my early furniture pieces and tableaus as prototypes for mass production. So it was not much of a leap when I began having thermal dies made for the mass production of vinyl decals for large gallery and museum installation. The decals in turn led to the vacuum formed styrene wall panels. The funny thing about the mass produced elements is they are not perfectly identical. Through the manufacture and installation they continue to exhibit a human hand.  This impossible quest to achieve mathematical perfection by hand has become central to my studio production.

On teaching at UCR

I am a professor at UCR and I have a practice divided between studio work and public commissions. With essentially three full-time jobs, balance is an ongoing juggle.  All three inform, inspire and somehow make the others possible. Lucky for me, my teaching allows me the freedom to choose projects based on their particular interest.