“What’s up with the Whitman bags?” A Conversation with Jake Shore at Ladybug Providence

Michael Gunn
BFA PT 2024

Jake Shore
BFA SC 2017

On October 15, I attended Jake Shore at Ladybug Providence (Oct. 15–Nov. 12), a gallery in Noah Rubien (PT 24) and Luca Antonio’s (PT 24) apartment. The show left me with a ton of questions. The night began with ten bags presented as if in a store showroom. It ended with an intimate performance of screen printing on clothing contributed by the audience. The same screen was used to transform the newsprint stuffing hidden inside the bags. After foggy and perplexing conversations around the work after the show, I reached out to Jake himself in hopes to pick his brain for some clarity.

MG The main reason I asked to do this interview is because of the way you interact with text and performance. What people do after school is going to be really interesting for current RISD students to look in on, so this show feels relevant and important to bring to a publication like v.1. To start us off, what have you been up to since you graduated, and what year did you graduate again, was it 2017?

JS Yeah, I graduated in 2017. I moved to New York after school with some of my friends. I worked a bunch of random jobs and got a studio.

MG What exactly is it that brought you back to Providence to show, and what does it feel like to be amongst the RISD community again?

JS Noah and Luca mentioned they were starting a project space and invited me to do a show. It was a really enriching and amazing experience.

MG For sure. I’m curious about how you got in contact with Noah and Luca to work in their project space? I know Noah and Luca mentioned being in New York seeing some shows and talking to people.

JS Luca and Noah came to my show “Different Paintings 2” at Triest. We ended up hanging out a bunch when they came back to New York for the summer.

MG I’m wondering how the space might have given you freedom, and how using the bags, commercial and readymade, brought about a show that had less formal pressure. How did you conceptualize the apartment gallery space, and were you aware of the layout before setting up?

Images courtesy of Ladybug Gallery

JS Noah and Luca sent pictures of the space, and I’d been thinking about not doing a painting show and not painting. I wanted to make a show that had virtually no artwork in it. It’s hard to even call it a sculpture or an object. The tension is what I’m really interested in: What constitutes art?

MG Yeah, there is a rich history attached to those ideas, too. I want to investigate the tension you have within words like readymades, or commodities, or when people start talking about artwork as “things,” but more specifically, what about the repetition is meaningful and what did you learn working with them in this show?

JS There were ten bags and one artist’s proof. When I was planning the show, my friend Kyle showed me this North Face store in New York with all of these bags hanging in the window, and so I just copied that. It felt simple and elegant and utilitarian. I worked in a boutique for a little while and since then I’d wanted to do a show that had the feeling of a boutique.

MG There is an undeniable commitment that goes into works emphasizing repetition. If this show had been presented as a singular bag on a pedestal it would have been more of a monument, and a much clearer nod to Duchamp. That comparison is weary because the emphasis on this singular thing being an art object is less essential to your show.

JS You know Duchamp is a Leo. I’m interested in astrology. I’m also a Leo. I asked my friend about this and he said, you know Leo is the child of the zodiac signs. Here, I want to figure out your chart.

MG I actually know my big three if that helps: I’m a Scorpio sun, a Capricorn moon, and … I am actually a Leo rising —

JS Here, I’m looking at your horoscope. The way you look at the world will change dramatically in the next few days. You could even find yourself starting to promote ideas you previously thought of as rubbish. That is what new information does for you. It opens your eyes and your mind. Woah, that’s exciting.

MG Are you like a big astrology guy, or is it something you just meditate on at random?

JS Something fun, I do love it. In some of Dan Graham’s writings he would introduce somebody as, let’s say, an architect and a Scorpio.

MG Yeah, when you look up your zodiac it is common to find it referencing other celebrities, like Oh, Obama is a blank zodiac just like me. It gives you a sense of their impression maybe?

JS Obama is a Leo.

MG I have a question in relation to that too. I’m curious as to what your relationship to Walt Whitman is —

JS Walt Whitman is a Gemini!

MG Is that your relationship? I guess for me it might be about persona, and how he becomes useful in what you do and how you exist in the work. Looking into his history in relation to your show, he was a printer as much as he was a writer, and he wrote Leaves of Grass. He spent his whole life republishing and contributing to that title as a massive ongoing project. What do you think about a person and their history that is invested into a whole lifetime’s practice, but now is a name for your work? Do you consume a lot of media within your practice?

JS Yeah, I suppose I do. I talked to Luca and Noah about this, about the words. Walt Whitman was just the perfect text for this bag. I typed it in, and was looking at it, and it felt right. Everyone has a different understanding. I’m terrified of art that has one meaning.

MG You seem interested in the way in which certain words, names, titles have the potential to open a lot of different entry points into the work with an audience. It is a way to engage what they bring to the table in relation to the language; Walt Whitman’s name might be enough to make an emotion happen for someone. It feels less personally invested.

JS That is a great way to think of it.

MG Did you just like the way it sounded, or looked, what is that decision for you? Did anyone say anything interesting during the show as they tried to piece it together?

JS People were calling the text on the stuffing a poem. I didn’t consider it a poem, but of course that’s a valid and partly expected takeaway. I make drawings with text a lot and things come to me without hardly thinking about it. I’ll write something down that I’m not even conscious of, and when I look back I realize: that is exactly what I was or am feeling.

MG People are fast to give out an artist’s name, too. We are attached to names as representations. I know names of things I’ve never even watched, but still have a preconceived idea of it from vague conversations. Your work reminds me of those doodles and notes we collect from conversations. It isn’t as intimate, but it is as emotionally charged. How vulnerable did it feel to put that out, on people’s clothes, and having it on the flyer to disperse?

JS I love it. It’s funny. The writing has to be extremely personal or, conversely, totally mundane. I wanted there to be secrets out in the open, even if you can’t grasp them. I love exhibition ephemera and items, posters, etc. for people to take. And, furthermore, I wanted to do something that would give people a personal tie back to this moment in time, specifically the opening of the exhibition. So, we silkscreened the text from the stuffing onto people’s clothes.

MG The work felt like a placeholder for conversation to happen in the space before it got more intimate in the screenprinting portion. It was inaccessible in a humorous way that felt like it was deeply attached to you. By the end of the night, most of the people lingering knew each other, so it made me complicate the emotional potential of the work and its ability to prompt me. I have the shirt you printed and care for it a lot — allowing it to get stained from long days in the studio. How do you feel about all of this becoming part of a more mass printed text and image publication like v.1, that reinvents itself every time it manifests a new issue? What happens when it keeps moving through our mission statement? Is it fate?

JS It is an amazing moment. I love chance and letting it go. Something ends up being some way that I wouldn’t arrive at when it is let go, and I’m still torn about that. It gives me plenty to think about. It is too boring not to try complicated and failed movements in the work. I love circulation, you never know what will happen to it. I love “collage” in that way. It gives me plenty to think about.

MG Letting go a little bit and not forcing it, letting the natural progression of things happen. It is sort of like an algorithm too, a screenshot of something that came up randomly but also attached to a specific randomness — one thing always leads to another. Well, I appreciate you speaking about the work so openly, and seeing the show was really special. Thank you.

JS Of course! And, thank you for this, it was great talking!

Jake is someone I hardly knew, and even after this conversation, his work is still a riddle. But in attempting to solve it for this interview, I found quite profound boundaries that made me rethink how much it matters to know the artist in trying to understand their work. How do you draw without ever picking up a stylus, to draw without touching?

Within this series of carry-on bags embroidered with Whitman’s name — stuffed with screen printed supplements written by Jake — I realized that embodying a persona as a site to distance oneself from the authority of authorship activates drawing in new ways. It means that a machine, a screenprinting method, language itself, and contributions of owned items from the audience form the substrate for replication, ideation, and speculative thinking in physical form. Jake’s writing, which is most like notation on a sketchbook page or a sticky note — immediate and intuitive yet labeled behind Whitman’s name — is a form of drawn connections that allows his work to live through the devices of media, mass-produced commodities, and audience’s reactions in an intimate apartment gallery. The audience’s connotations of random words that he uses, like mark-making, shape the meaning, physicality, and legacy of the work.

In reflection, this interview feels evermore important than my initial impression. Jake stated that he is often called a painter, or as I said, a maker of “things.” He said that he often feels more connected to drawing — the intuitive nature, the figuring it out as you go, the touching and making new connections. Jake’s written text pieces aren’t poetry; they’re drawing. The audience brings what we know to the space, considering the presence of words and history. He may know much less, but he prompts conversations by filling the empty space. Often, the vulnerability of language is that it is capable of holding disparate meanings in the same way that a hatch mark, a splatter, or a graphite dot can hold complexity. For him they aren’t separated, and I think he is widening the potential for drawing (or writing) to define a particular mindset versus a materiality. We can draw with anything. “Drawing” happens whether we mean to or not, like it or not.

Michael Gunn is a Scorpio.

Jake Shore is a Leo.