Studio Visit | Jeff Ostergren
Studio Visit | Jeff Ostergren
During Jeff Ostergren’s second year of graduate school at the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, California, his future mother-in-law, a psychiatric nurse practitioner, gave him a wall clock. Across the bottom of its bland face, white letters inside of a blue wave spelled out “Zoloft,” the brand name of an antidepressant introduced to the market around 1992. Intuitively, Ostergren incorporated this gift, presumably meant as a gag, into one of his sculptures. The contrast between the sculpture’s materials—welded metal slabs with an austere formalist air and the plastic clock used to promote the product—elicited strong reactions among his peers. Some were confounded. Others shared their experiences with Zoloft or similar antidepressants. Ostergren realized he had found a subject that touched many people’s lives. Over fifteen years later, this topic continues to occupy the brunt of his artistic research.
Ostergren focuses his investigation of the pharmaceutical industry on its production as well as its impact on our culture, an approach that offers evidence of his educational background in anthropology. “The things we put in our bodies have a really personal relationship to us,” Ostergren said inside his New Haven studio, “and they have a source.” Companies such as Purdue Pharma, the maker of OxyContin, employ various strategies to introduce the largest possible number of consumers to their products. Ostergren added, “[My] work can be seen as a critique of that source or a reflection of where these things come from.” Ostergren’s work is not flatly critical because pharmaceuticals are a necessary and irrevocable part of our lives.
Becoming a professional artist was not an obvious career path for Ostergren, but a college internship at the Contemporary Arts Museum Houston introduced him to the work of James Turrell. Piquing his interest in contemporary art, Ostergren continued to work in museums after college, landing a gig as a guard at The Phillips Collection after he and his partner had relocated to Washington, D.C. In his late twenties, Ostergren began making art, self-described “bad paintings.” Other works were centered on institutional critique, which felt relevant to Ostergren at that time, but it would take many years for Ostergren’s technical skills to match his conceptual crux.
As Ostergren began mining the branding campaigns and advertising schemes of pharmaceutical companies, he paid particular attention to the ubiquity of specific imagery. In the television commercials for a range of different pharmaceuticals, Ostergren noticed that women dabbled with ceramics and families enjoyed the natural world with an unlikely frequency. The advertisements seemed to assert creativity as a normative state for the general public. Health, in general, appeared to be associated with the landscape. These depictions most likely resulted from market research, reflecting problematic and homogenized conceptions of class, race, and gender back at the intended audience.
In some of his earlier works, Ostergren spliced similar clips from multiple commercials to draw attention to the perversity of pharmaceutical advertisements. In Side Affects (2009), some of these bucolic representations of the landscape and health play on the screen while the audio speeds through the lengthy list of—at times, alarming—side effects. Ask Your Doctor, from the same year, underscores the patient’s responsibility to seek their own medications. These advertisements put the onus on the patient to ascertain appropriate medical care, Ostergren stated.
Around 2009 during an extended period of experimentation, Ostergren began mixing ground up pharmaceuticals—antidepressants, pain killers, sleep medicine, and sometimes more mundane drugs such as blood pressure medicine—into his paint pigments. Composed of chemical and artificial matter, synthetic paint pigments are produced with the same precision and in similar environments as contemporary pharmaceuticals. Physically adding the drugs to his paint was a logical way to connect his artistic production with those of the drug companies and fuse their shared histories.
A recent installation acted as the catalyst for deeper research into these shared production methods and histories. Science For a Better Life was commissioned by Artspace New Haven for City-Wide Open Studios in 2018, at the site of a former Bayer Pharmaceutical production, research, and administrative facility. (The building is known as Yale West Campus.) Ostergren incorporated the company’s drugs into all of the paintings, sculptures, and videos that were spread around the 2,400-square foot installation space. All of the works were directly tied to the previous function of the space. Inside an abandoned walk-in freezer where pharmaceuticals had been stored in the basement of the building, Ostergren found dozens of printed posters and photographs which became the surfaces for many of his paintings. Cabinets, tables, and partitions discovered elsewhere were included within the installation as well.
As he worked on this installation, Ostergren delved into the history of Bayer. (The title of the work is, in fact, taken directly from the company’s slogan.) Visiting local library archives, especially Yale University’s Haas Arts Library, Ostergren began to make links between the advent of synthetically produced drugs and the rise of readily available artist pigments. Ostergren explained that several pharmaceutical companies—including Bayer, which was founded in 1863 in Wuppertal, Germany—started with the production of dyes, not drugs. As a rainbow of colors became available, a wave of highly saturated clothing and other textiles became available to consumers during the late nineteenth century. The brilliance of hue and the fascination with the effects of light on color present within Impressionist paintings may have been inspired by these new dyes, which were not yet lightfast.
Poppy Fields (Afghanistan, Allergies, Argenteuil) (2019) illustrates this merger of two seemingly disparate worlds through their shared imagery and timelines. This painting layers three distinct images: one is taken from an 1873 painting by Claude Monet of a poppy field, another is from a photograph of soldiers guarding poppy fields in Afghanistan, and the last comes from an advertisement for an allergy medication that shows a woman standing in a poppy field. The dotted paint application across the painting’s surface references both pointillism and pills. The vibrant palette refers to the saturated colors from pharmaceutical logos as well as the cheerful colors of the Impressionist and Neo-Impressionist artists. Overall, The environment appears poisonous and pleasing.
“I am fascinated by how we regulate our bodies,” Ostergren said. “We have to make choices that aren’t always ideal.” Under ideal circumstances, we take drugs to address specific ailments. Ostergren’s practice brings attention to our relationship with these medications: the effectiveness, our reliance, and the societal conditions that magnify our dependencies.
Summer Reading List | Jeff Ostergren
Jeff Ostergren’s interview on The First Stop podcast, July 9, 2018