Jacqueline Surdell and feminine power
By Kate Mothes
“I walked the court, feeling the ways the wood or plastic tiling or rubber flooring felt beneath my feet. When I was dressed and ready, I would lean down and knock on the floor, signaling entry into a sacred space where I was seen as strong and powerful—my body and mind honed and trained for this specific purpose. It was in these moments and spaces that I felt safe to scream, roar, bleed, spit, swear—sit with my legs apart—take up space in ways I wasn’t encouraged to in my day-to-day life.”
— Jacqueline Surdell
When Chicago-based artist Jacqueline Surdell describes the construction of her voluminous knotted and woven sculptures, she likens the first moves to the act of planting a seedling. As the structures grow, they develop distinct personalities, which require patience and encouragement. Sometimes their evolution stagnates and it may take months for a resolution to become apparent. Other times, she starts over, coaxing apart the cords and rope and grafting them into new works. For her solo exhibition Score! at Devening Projects, the artist has created a new body of work that is simultaneously bold, poignant, and regenerative, made from what she describes as stranger, more unplanned “second skins” of previous pieces.
“There’s a subtle violence in breaking apart to build back up,” Surdell tells Dovetail, “like how a muscle is torn before it gets stronger.” Growing up in a family of artists and athletes, she has been interested in parallels between sports and art for some time. She played competitive volleyball for ten years, recruited by Occidental College in Los Angeles where she studied art. She became increasingly interested in the significance and subtleties of ritual, labor, and community in sports and the way they hold a mirror to broader social interactions. Athletic rituals and labor are a central tenet of these works, in which a sense of the sacred emerges.
If courts, pitches, and arenas are akin to hallowed ground, they are analogous to the spaces in which art is made and experienced. For Surdell, the studio provides the same opportunity to fully express herself. The physicality of weaving and knotting bulky and heavy materials requires perseverance and trust in the process. It is a space for practice, preparation, and problem-solving. She explains, “The nuances, the feelings, the moments specific to each space alter the ways in which I manifest the work. That physicality and respect for the space—the way the space affects my mind and body—it’s the same as the court.”
In the canonical realm of sport, as in religion, the repetitive nature of ritual can generate transcendental experiences and imbue certain objects with sacred meaning. Superstitions and mantras repeated before entering the gym invite good energy and provide a sense of preparedness and calm; if interrupted, the process might start over from the beginning. A series of three totem-like smaller works, I miss the sound of sirens I, II, and III, hang from the ceiling and nestle in corners, suspended between a sense of glory, like trophies, and a manifestation of an ending, like butchered meat on a hook. Accumulation and repetition are key: in team sports, victories must be repeated, as must the drills, routines, and skills to achieve them.
“There’s a subtle violence in breaking apart to build back up, like how a muscle is torn before it gets stronger.”
For the artist, the transitional space between locker room and gym parallels the relationship between studio and exhibition. In places where practice transforms into performance, she focuses on the perception of impermanence and the nuances of labor in the spontaneous and unchoreographed phases between large events. “I appreciate the simplicity and honesty of those moments,” she says, “the humanness of that unseen labor. The first time I witnessed an art fair set up, I felt the same way—massive wooden crates being ferried around with forklifts and teams of people yelling and working together to create something that looks as if it all magically appeared.”
Devotion and sacrifice are central to Reliquary #7, the largest work on view and evocative of a shrine, a soccer ball cradled in its center. Seven gold soccer balls, slightly scuffed and strewn with ribbons, sit throughout the space like votives in memory of Northwestern University soccer player Michele Chernesky, who took her own life in March 2022. “She was an incredible soccer player,” Surdell says. “Throughout the making of this work, I thought about Michele and her memory, her spirit, her existence. Throughout her college years she wore #7. It became very important to me that her memory live on.”
In Reliquary #7, Study of Red Rope, and Desire to Ascend (our), nylon and cotton rope in vivid and contrasting hues are twisted and knotted around a steel frame, draping from a steel rod and spreading curtain-like around a dense, lower, central mass. Reminiscent of Lee Bontecou’s undulating steel and canvas sculptures, Surdell’s hulking, womb-like structures bear an immense yet precious weight and are suggestive of a figurative splaying of the spiritual body, laid open, bare, and vulnerable.
In Greek mythology, Scylla is a terrifying and powerful six-headed monster, each mouth bearing three rows of sharp teeth and connected to a snake-like neck, with the heads of baying dogs around her loins. She lives on an island and devours anything—or anyone—who moves within her grasp. Along with the legendary Charybdis, who personifies a whirlpool, Scylla is usually rationalized as a reef or a rock, spelling disaster for mariners. Throughout human history, feminine power has been expressed in myriad ways, from the demonic to the divine, epitomizing passion and desire, justice, war, and wisdom across cultures. The artist’s describes her recent work as an exploration of “spiritual feminism and concepts connected to life cycles, spheres, circular modes of making and thinking, repetition, the opening and closing of a tied knot, two lifelines merged together.”
The symbolism of the knot, of tying and untying, resonates in Surdell’s practice through intimate and darkly powerful works like Scylla II, its serpentine tail draping from a writhing surface with a black volleyball in its clutches. Neon green paracord weaves an otherworldly undercurrent, redolent of St. Elmo’s Fire, the atmospheric phenomenon of a luminous plasma during storms from an electrical discharge, often appearing like an eerie, hissing flame emanating from the mast of a ship. The tightly braided cords evoke musculature and the inner, hidden, often suppressed strength of the female body, simultaneously expressing the inherently vulnerability of woman as vessel: a massive accumulation of knots is required to make a net, whether at sea or on the court.
Header image: Desire to Ascend (our) (detail), 2022. Cotton cord, nylon cord, steel, 120 x 60 x 24 in.
Photographs by Ian Vecchiotti, courtesy of the artist and Devening Projects.