Jill Giegerich was driving screws into a piece of plywood when the buzzer rang to announce a visitor to her downtown Los Angeles studio. After leading the way upstairs, she went back to finish the task, giving her visitor time to take in stacks of wood, trestle tables, a tool chest and neatly organized rows of sketches, one of them labeled "Lenin's Brain."
A group of small sculptures clustered on another wall--and made of wood, carpet, asphalt emulsion, tar paper and other unusual substances--looked similar to Giegerich's curiously elegant work on view in the "Awards in the Visual Arts" exhibition at the Newport Harbor Art Museum.
"I've kind of always been interested in using odd materials," she said slowly, piecing the words together carefully, "materials that are very accessible to the culture but a little bit odd when taken out of context and used as an art material."
Observers have been struck with the many-layered nature of Giegerich's work, which has to do with contrasts between the textures, colors and densities of different materials as well as with the innate qualities of everyday objects.
Her skill in combining a severe, Constructivist geometry with rough-hewn materials lends her work a formal beauty many sculptors would die for. But Giegerich worries about it.
"I can't help it!" she says, laughing, when told how elegant her work is. "It's something (about) my hand, my way of seeing. It comes naturally to do that. I have to be very careful . . . because it can end up with style being too prominent. So it's a fine line between making a beautiful object and making something that . . . will . . . have some intention and meaning to it.
"I love to make beautiful objects--my own definition of what's beautiful. I mean, that's certainly a kind of slippery term. I don't just want to make a pretty face. I think beauty has a lot to do with making an object that comes out of some internal struggle and is a momentary resolution."
She sighed, as if finding the words to express the idea was a struggle in itself. "I think beauty is also how fleeting truth is and making an object that is truthful only for a moment."
Asked whether streamlined appearances mean a lot in terms of how saleable her work is, Giegerich demured. "I remember times when people would come to my studio and pick up a piece and say, 'Well, what is this? It's just a piece of wallboard!'
Now in her mid-30s, Giegerich said she has become more confident about the direction of her ideas, first expressed in zany conceptual art projects at an experimental college in Oregon and later, in the heady atmosphere of Cal Arts.
Given her settled life (married to her former Cal Arts teacher John Mandell, she has a 4-year-old son) and the pleasures of feeling "very much a part of the (L.A. art) scene," it isn't surprising that she has no plans to seek fame and fortune in New York.
"I have an overblown ego like every other artist I know," she said wryly. "But I try not to think about that. . . . Just getting to work in the studio is very important, because all of that disappears and becomes inconsequential."
In the studio and out of it, her interests are diverse. "I'm interested in the industrial age because I see it as an age that's leaving us," she said. "Humans are evolving away from the world of concrete, discrete objects and into the world of ephemeral information. I'm interested in the Empire State Building." She laughed. "I'm interested in Lenin's brain."
Lenin's brain? "It's from a book I read, a very silly little book about Lenin that my husband brought home. Lenin died of a deteriorating nervous disorder, and the autopsy revealed that one lobe of his brain was the size of a walnut. The writer was obsessed with what (that) had to do with the Russian Revolution, but there's something underneath that that interests me. . . . I'm just beginning to play around with it, and possibly by the time I get done, it will have nothing to do with Lenin's brain."
The Newport Harbor Art Museum, at 850 San Clemente Drive, Newport Beach, is open 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Friday; 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Saturday; noon to 6 p.m. Sunday (closed Monday). Admission is $3 for adults, $2 for students, seniors and the military, $1 for children 6 to 17, and free for everyone on the first Tuesday of every month. For more information, call 759-1122.