Interview: Jeff Williams on Rubber, Bruised Buildings, and the Sense of Touch

by Renee Lai May 29, 2024
A concrete culvert with photographs hung on the left wall and rubber garments hanging from the ceiling, and a cast rubber sheet on the right wall.

Jeff Williams, installation view of “Bruised Buildings (Silo and Culvert),” 2024, cast rubber, cast aluminum, aluminum pipe, steel hardware, 240 x 120 x 120 inches. Photo: Ryan Thayer Davis and Co-Lab Projects

I went to see Jeff William’s show, Bruised Buildings, on what felt like the first day of summer — humid, sweaty, with my car thermometer reading 100 as I parked in front of Co-Lab Projects in Austin. I had seen some images of the work online, but I was unprepared for the smell of hot rubber that hit me once I stepped into the culvert. There were four bodies of work in the space: a set of metal sculptures in the front, a series of photographs arranged in a line, and several jackets assembled from pieces of cast rubber hanging on a rack with a semi-peeled rubber cast of the interior wall of the culvert itself in the back. The smell drew me in, and I spent the most time looking at the jackets and the half-peeled cast of the wall, and admiring the freckles and divots and even the text transfer onto the rubber. The longer I spent in the culvert, the more the smell began to affect me. The show felt integrated, formal, and really quite beautiful. The following is an edited and condensed conversation between Jeff Williams and I about his show. 

Red rubber jackets hang in a concrete space with red rubber casting on the wall to the right.

Jeff Williams, detail of “Bruised Buildings (Silo and Culvert),” 2024, cast rubber, cast aluminum, aluminum pipe, steel hardware, 240 x 120 x 120 inches. Photo: Renee Lai

Renee Lai (RL): How did you come up with the idea for this project? What got you started with working with rubber as a material?

Jeff Williams (JW): Liquid rubber was something I came upon when I was in undergrad. I went to school in Columbus, OH, and one of the best ways to fund your education was to work at one of these haunted house fabrication companies. There is a lot of liquid latex in Halloween masks and props, so for the most part I learned about the material by helping to fabricate this holiday. I started thinking about using it in my work in grad school. There are quite a few artists who have used liquid rubber as a way to transition to sculpture from making paintings, such as Eva Hesse. I went to school for painting and slowly moved into installation and sculpture. Paint itself is a skin, and you can work with latex in a larger site-responsive format. Starting in grad school, I was doing wall installations with this material. I met Rosa Lowinger, who is the principal conservator for the company RLA Conservation, and she introduced me to the use of this material to clean large architectural surfaces. The material does a great job of fusing dirt into its surface, so when you peel it off it is locked in. 

I’ve done a few things in Texas with this material. Most recently I made a rubber mold of a rice silo at The Silos at Sawyer Yard for Sculpture Month Houston in 2018. The majority of the jackets in this show are from that rubber mold. From that mold there were a ton of really interesting cuts and dents and welded seams and structural rungs and access panels, as well as accreted dirt. I was living with this bolt of rubber and eventually thought of it as a fabric. I started cutting into it thinking that maybe I’d make patterns for metal casting, and then this idea of patterns led me to garments.

I took the photographs in 2020. I was sitting on my rooftop during the pandemic lockdown and looking across at the damage on my neighboring building, remembering what happened in 2010 with a tornado. I eventually realized it was an artwork and decided to photograph it. The jackets have imprints from the silo, and the building in the photographs has imprints from construction materials that were thrown at it during the tornado. These two indexical representations made sense to me to be paired together. I realized the aluminum sculptures would also be a nice fit for this; they have a different register where you can process the weld and the time that it would take for that action, whereas with the rubber jackets that kind of immediacy is totally lost.

Several pans are welded together and hang from the wall.

Jeff Williams, “Deep Dish,” 2024, welded aluminum pans, 12 x 12 x 3 inches. Photo: Renee Lai

RL: We can talk a little bit about the formal aspect of your show. One of the things that pulled everything together for me was this idea of bisection. The aluminum sculptures are welded in the middle, the light was hung in the middle, bisecting the culvert in a vertical way, the rubber casting on the wall was pulled down halfway in the back. The jackets that you made from the rice silos mold had prominent seams, and something about that seaming and the bisection felt like it tied everything together.

JW: I was thinking about what I was doing in the culvert as a dimensional drawing. That’s why the lighting is directly down the middle, which relates to the line of the photographs, and the jackets and the pans do this vertical line. I think that was the original idea behind it, but there is quite a bit formally that speaks to bisection. The welding process for the pans sometimes welds and sometimes cuts. So, the pans are fusing and separating as I make the singular line.

RL: I don’t know much about welding— is that normal? 

JW: It is not typical that you would weld cookware. It is a thin gauge and I used a spool welder, which feeds the aluminum wire into the line I am making. Aluminum takes a while to heat up, so you can weld it but it is really easy to go too far and splash through. I also thought about how aluminum has all these contradictions in it. The cheapest and the most expensive things are made of it, from tinfoil to race cars. It is used to explore the galaxy and search for life, and simultaneously used in weapons to annihilate life. Though I don’t think anyone looking at these pieces would think of these things, it helped me make decisions. 

RL: Another thing I wanted to talk about is your relationship to touch. The story you tell about your work, where a tornado threw furniture from your rooftop into the side of your neighboring building, made me think of touch as a violent thing. You described the traces left on the building as bruises from an attack that never healed, but I saw them as scars, things weathered. The touch within the show, with the careful application of rubber, the way the rubber is pulled off in thin sheets, and the way the sculptures were bisected and put back together, felt so tender in contrast.

JW: The two jackets in the show that are the most homely, the ones that look like hoodies, have a rubber texture that is closest to the actual texture of a hoodie itself. These two jackets were made from a rubber casting of the culvert that I think continues the idea of the sense of touch. The ones made from the silo casting are far more radical stylistically and also in terms of the different details that they picked up off the structures, as well as the grime. I liked the contrast between those two. The pans are the most clean formally; it is what it is, cookware, things used typically to feed yourself or others disrupted with this formal gesture. 

A detail of a photograph depicting the outdoor wall of a building with a large indentation on it.

Jeff Williams, section of “Bruised Buildings (Castle),” 2024, UV prints on dibond, 12 x 162 inches. Photo: Renee Lai

RL: I really responded to how it is all about care in a way. The coats are things that keep you warm, protect you from the elements. I thought of raincoats. The way those pans were stacked made me think of the interior of my own kitchen and how my own pans are stacked. They felt salvaged and treasured. The buildings are such an interesting counterpoint to that because no one ever repaired the damage. 

JW: In 2010 there was an attempt, but by the time I photographed in 2020 much of that had degenerated. The construction boom in Austin is similar to that in Brooklyn, where the photos were taken. Buildings seem to be built for budget and speed. This building in the photograph has a styrofoam and stucco facade, which is not an enduring material. I think of it as developer-forward design. There is an architect involved, but not all buildings are architecture, not all architecture is building, so these might be structures that aren’t architecture. Considerations like that made me think that this piece had to be in Austin. The space of the culvert itself, a concrete tube for drainage, typically underground, is almost an artwork itself when it is above ground as a gallery. So, I don’t think the rubber installation, the jackets with the skirt (the semi-peeled off casting of the wall) — I don’t think that could happen anywhere else. It ended up being the perfect fit for how these things could come together. 

RL: I also thought about construction site debris, where there are work boots and crumpled-up water bottles. Something about the dirtiness of the rubber made me think of that and the space of the culvert itself. It also reminded me very strongly of a slaughterhouse or racks of ham.

JW: In my spare time I’ve been going around to places like Reimers Ranch in Austin and drawing the stalactite formations. There are a couple of them that look like a rack of coats that have calcified, so it originally started with that. The latex is pigmented so that as you’re doing coat after coat, you can tell where you were and what needs a bit more of an application. The adding of a tint shifted it from something that might be more of a stalactite to something that might be more of a deep freeze meat rack. 

A concrete wall that has been cast with latex rubber reveals the divots and textures that transferred to the rubber once it is peeled back.

Jeff Williams, detail of “Bruised Buildings (Silo and Culvert),” 2024, cast rubber, cast aluminum, aluminum pipe, steel hardware, 240 x 120 x 120 inches. Photo: Renee Lai

RL: That brings me to my last question. I enjoyed looking at the various divots and dirt in the rubber that was applied onto the back wall and pulled halfway down — looking at the casting made me more aware of the various irregularities and texture of the wall itself. It also made me think about making rubbings, this sort of direct one-to-one transfer. What is the actual process for making these? 

JW: If you’re needing to repair some sort of feature on concrete or stone, you can apply the rubber and remove it. It is the least invasive thing you can do to get a mold of whatever you’re repairing. You apply it much like you would house paint. It is painful in terms of the patience required. If the humidity is right, it can be an hour between coats. You need between 12 and 20 coats. We hit some unfortunate weather — torrential rain — the second week of installation. The concrete of the culvert absorbs the rain, so it seeped through into the interior. Sean Gaulager, who runs Co-Lab Projects, helped immensely with getting that skirt on the inside. It wouldn’t have happened without Sean! With the humidity and dampness, it might have been three to four hours between coats. That’s why the rubber skirting is thin like lunch meat, because we physically couldn’t get on that many coats. The hoodies have triple the number of coats of rubber. 

RL: So once the rubber dries you pull it down, and it all comes down as one thing? 

JW: No, it is a struggle! It takes a lot to pull it down without totally ruining it. The rubber sticks to itself really easily, so you can end up with this tangled ball if you aren’t careful. I used cornstarch to help prevent that, but there are also clear color set powders for makeup you can use if you want less of a haze on the surface.


Jeff Williams: Bruised Buildings is on view at Co-Lab Projects in Austin through June 1, 2024. You can learn more about the show here

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