In Conversation With Artist Jordan Weber
To employ the word “earthy” to describe the work of artist Jordan Weber would be both compliment and fact. Weber’s medium of choice is nature—specifically, turf collected from the sites of historic events such as Ferguson, Missouri, the neighborhood where Black teen Michael Brown Jr. was slain by a white police officer during a controversial 2014 altercation. The result of Weber’s curious artistic method is haunting, politically explosive art that evinces his progressive ideals.
“I like the idea of earth being energized or charged by human events,” says the artist, based in Des Moines, Iowa. “For instance, I think humans identify Ferguson earth with Mike Brown, with him lying on the ground. That event charged that earth. I like the way that earth connects the environment to the human—that’s the main thing that drives my work.”
Weber’s propensity for working with natural biofacts lends his creations a wildness that’s unusual, even in today’s edgy, post-contemporary art world. One of his most recent untitled works features a taxidermied wolf baring its fangs from atop a mound of shiny automotive rims. The installation represents Weber’s impressionistic view of how the West perceives Black males—feral, menacing, predatory. The piece exemplifies Weber’s penchant for juxtaposing nature against familiar pop-culture effects, like automotive gear, sports paraphernalia and branded household products. That yin-yang clash between the organic and the synthetic creates that delectable cognitive clangor.
“I always want to expose elements within the work that are relatable to people in my community,” Weber says. “Something like rims are extremely relatable within Black, Latino, White and hip-hop cultures. I like to have these ‘openings’ within the work—those elements people can relate to—so they can feed into the psychology of the work.”
More often than not, the themes that drive Weber’s work are resistance, minority empowerment, environmental activism and conspicuous consumption. The latter is a particular sore point for the artist, who believes American minorities have become so “spiritually estranged” that they reflexively patronize elitist corporations that don’t invest back into their communities.
Weber powerfully addressed this topic in his 2013 land art installation “Louis Vuitton Crack House,” wherein he stenciled pastel-colored Louis Vuitton logos onto abandoned, boarded-up Des Moines homes. Weber again plays with an environment, arousing pity, outrage and even laughter with his surfacey glamorization of the squalid inner-city, the fine-art equivalent of putting lipstick on a pig. “A lot of these corporations have oppressive backgrounds, and to this day they don’t give a fuck about inner-city communities,” Weber says. “I’m condemning the brands more than the person consuming them. It’s more about trying to enlighten the person buying things.”
Many of Weber’s favorite creative devices are evident in his 2015 project, “American Dreamers.” Inspired by the aforementioned Michael Brown controversy, Phase One features a symbolic squad car emblazoned with a Ferguson Police logo, foam-board “blood” gushing from its interior. The installation is complemented by 18 cardinals, symbolizing Michael Brown’s age and the St. Louis Cardinals baseball team he loved.
When Weber debuted Phase Two in Los Angeles, the theme shifted from police brutality to neighborhood reclamation. It featured a cop car overrun by wild flora symbolic of a community garden. Phase Three was a performance piece representing redemption, featuring a black bodybuilder lifting weights crafted from parts of the cop car—self-improvement borne from the ashes of tragedy.
If Weber’s intention was to agitate, he got his wish. “American Dreamers” caused a controversy, with some accusing the artist of advocating vigilante justice. “It was never meant to be an anti-cop piece, it was an anti-police brutality piece,” Weber states emphatically. “That was the whole focus of that entire installation: to visualize the frustration of our side.”
According to Robert Schulte, spokesperson for Des Moines’ Moberg Gallery, Weber pieces like “American Dreamers” and “Louis Vuitton Crack House” are notable not only for their strong social statements, but also for their gut-wringing eeriness. “When he has a piece, you look at it, and there’s something inherently disturbing about it,” says Schulte. “It’s a weird mashup of socially conscious pop that really questions history and our social norms.”
Weber comes by his nonconformist proclivities naturally. The son of a black social activist and a white community worker, Weber’s biracial upbringing afforded him fly-on-the-wall peeks into America’s racial divide. Now, after 10 years of creating work, he has begun to invite favorable comparisons to celebrated art mavericks including Jean-Michel Basquiat, Roy Lichtenstein, Dread Scott and Banksy.
Weber also makes it a point to partner with youth programs to promote the idea of art as activism. “For me, the goal is to inspire people to act for long-term, sustainable redevelopment of their environment,” he says. “If there’s no pathway for action in the work, it’s pointless for me.”
All images courtesy of Jordan Weber.
Cover Image: “American Dreamers (Phase 2)”
Ferguson Earth, Cop Car, plants, steel