Goldie winner — Visual art: Jenifer K. Wofford

Pub date November 7, 2007
SectionArts & CultureSectionVisual Art

Hey framer, don’t try to frame Jenifer K. Wofford. She’ll turn that frame into a threshold. Her creative identity ricochets from teacher to student to painter to performer to director to curator with a self-determining force that exposes the mutability of such labels.

In May, Point of Departure, Wofford’s evolving series of postcard-size portraits of Filipina nurses, was a highlight (along with understated contributions by Bill Jenkins and Alicia McCarthy) of the UC Berkeley MFA show at the Berkeley Art Museum. In late July and early August, Wofford and 8 of 14 other participating Bay Area artists — including 2007 Goldie winner Michael Arcega — journeyed to Manila, the Philippines, for the first of three installments of the traveling exhibition "Galleon Trade," which she conceived and organized. (The show’s next stop will be at San Francisco’s Luggage Store, and from there it will venture to Mexico City.)

It usually takes a large institution with major funding to assemble a project of "Galleon Trade"<0x2009>‘s scope, but Wofford can not only skewer a museum’s lust for colonialist decoration (as one third of the performance mob known as Mail Order Brides and in solo pieces such as 2005’s Chicksilog) but also do the cultural exchange work that these establishments somehow fail to achieve with all of their resources. "The word that came up for all of us was serendipity," she says, discussing "Galleon Trade"<0x2009>‘s Manila manifestation, which required last-minute scrambling between the city’s thriving visual art and experimental film and video venues. "The entire time we were there, there was just one intersection after another where things fell into place."

The community goals of Wofford’s "Galleon Trade" are counterpointed by her solo art endeavors, which repeatedly tap into transitional spaces and isolated states of being. Hospitals (in Point of Departure and 2006’s drawing-video project Nurse) and motels (in 2005’s installation Motel Cucaracha) are just two liminal zones that Wofford is drawn to as if they were magnetic fields. She explores both in a manner that pinches people’s assumptions about privilege and servitude and what makes an insider or an outsider. "I’m fascinated by borders, or places where people don’t belong," she says. In fact, for her next solo show (at Southern Exposure) Wofford plans to spotlight and perhaps parodically re-create metal detectors in order to tap into their tragicomic potential. This idea takes on another facet when Wofford mentions that her "bullshit detector" goes off anytime that she reenters the art world just after teaching in high school.

"I just can’t not be inappropriate," Wofford jokes, the triple negative demonstrating her affinity for the truth that often resides in awkwardness. "Comedians of color like Dave Chappelle know that you get heard by being funny — the court jester gets to stay in the court. Also, humor can be disarming for a lot of people." This quality, partly forged through her work with fellow MOB artists Eliza Barrios and Reanne Estrada, is present whether she’s displaying the absurdist properties of the Flip-Flop on a Stick (in a hilarious video homage to a hand-fashioned bug-killing contraption she found at a market in Manila’s Quiapo District) or proving Yma Sumac will have her revenge on Hollywood. "Most of my projects have been born from some infantile Beavis and Butthead moment," Wofford goes on to confess, the pop-cult reference pinging off the gray-hoodie poses she and her sister Camille adopted for the 2006 performance-painting Woffords, Paint. "After I stop laughing, I start thinking about why I was snickering."

Where do we come from, and where the hell are we going? Wofford has a keen sense of just how impossible it is to answer those questions, which means she’s as good a person as any to follow into the future.