Observer: Jen Mann | Artist
Jen Mann is a painter based in Toronto whose colorful portraiture speaks without words and encompasses a full range of human relationships, narratives, and emotions. They’ve silently spoken about topics ranging from social conceptions to self-reflection. Her capture of surreal, vivid, and true to life moments have left many admirers gap-mouthed at her canvases and prompted countless reblogs. But not only does her work speak in articulate volumes, so does she. Her work reflects the perceptive and thoughtful mind behind the brush. AMMO was given the pleasure to hear her thoughts from beauty to batman.
What is your AMMO?
My new studio is certainly a piece of “ammo” for me. It keeps me focused, inspired, and busy. Being in the heart of Toronto, keeps me surrounded by a fast pace, to keep time to.
In your portraiture there seems to be a strong visual payoff with each canvas: from color, expression, and the superimposition of images that are at once hyper-realistic and surrealistic it is apparent why your work resonates with a large audience. Now that said, what is your relationship to creating these pieces, other than creating a painting what do you strive to express if anything?
Almost all of my work is primarily conceptual, and then visually captivating only second to the ideas. I typically start each series of works with writing of some sort, which inspires the images. My work all deals with identity and relationships circling around existential themes. I use color almost as a story telling technique for emotional plotlines. Color certainly is a cohesive element through all of my work. I am currently working on a very concept driven series for my forthcoming solo show at Neubacher Shor Contemporary opening this fall (2014). The storylines behind the work in this show deals with ideas of self, questions we ask regarding our identity, and the people who surround us, all from a cynical and sarcastic point of view.
What were/are the influences or experiences that lead you to want to or feel the need to express this message through art?
I feel like paintings for me are the most intuitive way to express my narratives of self-discovery, understanding, and acceptance. I have always found it a little hard to express in words the complexities of emotions or thoughts that I may have. By using images, I can express to someone as much or as little as they are willing to understand, but for me the act of putting these images together is cathartic in a way. Solidifying the ideas into existence, without having to really put them into words. Like a snap shot into a visual feeling or thought on a subject, which can evolve on its own. I feel like thoughts are multi-dimensional. Once you put them into very specific words, they loose part of their meaning.
In Super Electronic they describe your art as seeking to explore the outer horizons of beauty and to view those places with ‘rose tinted glass’ would you say this is an accurate description of what your work ‘strives’ to do, if so do you find yourself expanding on or evolving from this purpose?
My last series ‘Strange Beauties’ 2013 – was a look at relationships between me and people I found myself shooting in my studio, often friends and family. I wanted to look at the awkward, ugly, intense, or sometimes just bland photos I had previously cast off as no good after looking through the photos, and see beauty in them. I was afraid of getting jaded to what beauty was, and how we define beauty in our society. I was also interested in how in this age of digital photography and instant imagery, we often cast off these blinking or weird moments by just deleting them. I found these moments symbolic of hiding these awkward or irregular/ individual parts of ourselves, because we don’t think they are acceptable or beautiful to others. I went back to these images and played with the colors until something magical sort of appeared inside the images. Something, I feel like, was already there, just waiting for me to see it. The colors felt playful and reminiscent to how we feel as children – that everything is and can be magical, if we just look at it the right way, or in the right light.
Speaking of journey and process how has the journey to become who you are as artist been thus far? As you were interested from a young age in art when and how did you decide that that would be your means of getting your daily bread and butter?
I don’t really know how much conscious thought I put in to getting my daily bread and butter so to speak. I have always felt that I had to make imagery to feel like myself. I feel that if you keep doing what you love, and put everything you feel into what you do, eventually something will come of it. I suppose it may be naïve, but it has worked out for me thus far.
Are there are any moments in your life as an artist that specifically influenced your work, can you pick one and describe it?
I think people I have met have influenced my work. My life, and events that happen in my life play huge rolls in how my work turns out. All of my work is heavily influenced by the issues I am currently dealing with in my life, and ideas that I find important. I feel like maybe some things are too personal to share, but what I do share, I think is evident in the work.
Your work seems something from a beautiful dream, can you describe one memory of a dream you had?
My dreams are sort of wild epic rides through some strange and psychedelic movie. I once had a dream where… ill give you a synopsis… my family moved to a new house- it happened to be my childhood doll house, in the basement, there was a maze of infinite rooms. A pirate came out of one of the rooms and pinned me against the wall with his hook, long story short I convinced him into being my friend and protecting me from bad guys. He then went upstairs with me where we hung out with my brother in his room. The pirate was tossing lucky charms in the air and we were catching them in our mouths.. it was to protect us from bad guys… Now getting late, I went to say goodnight to my parents. I asked my dad if he had checked all his closets and rooms for bad guys – he said yep.. I then went down the hall and asked my mom, she said she didn’t care if there were bad guys, she didn’t want to look, so I opened one of her closets… all I remember is blackness… I ran the other direction… as I ran towards my brothers room for the safety of the pirate man, batman ran past me the other direction, he was not going very fast but there was a speed blur behind him. I ducked into my brothers room. Batman busted in after me, and pointed to the pirate man, saying “that’s the culprit”… the pirate man turned into a giant snake in the sky… his head the front, and his body made up of giant lucky charm pieces… he and batman fought an epic battle in the sky above my house… I woke up.
People describe your work as beautiful and your show at Neubacher Shor Contemporary is called ‘Strange Beauties’, what are the first things that come to mind when you encounter the word ‘beauty’?
Beauty is a strange thing. I think that I am always exploring the idea of what is and can be beautiful. I think beauty both scares and allures me. I think I am always trying to push the boundaries for myself to what can be appealing.
In your interview with you describe the process you took to find the beauty in off shots or the ‘imperfect’ images and it seems like a process of discovery of beauty in the unplanned; what lead you to come across to this idea and what do you think you discovered through painting them?
We may have touched on this slightly already. I think that using color as a technique to incite emotion through imagery, is an effective way to have someone view an image from a different emotional perspective.
To create these beautiful works there may be a regimen behind them, would you describe how you work, gain inspiration on a practical level? Messy paint strewn studio or serene clean space?
Definitely serene clean space. Mess just impedes on clear headed thinking and ease of work.
What are some go to playlists, musicians or current obsessions that you play in your studio while you work?
To be honest – days are long painting. And any one band can get old fairly fast. I like to listen to a lot of songza playlists so I don’t have to think about anything, I found some good playlists that seem to keep me going fairly well. Three bands I am into pretty much always, – beach house, ori, and daughter.
Do you keep a sketchbook with you on the regular?
No – I don’t find that I sketch much anymore. I do take a lot of photos though.
On your tumblr someone asked you about painting people of color and you recognized while answering the question that you mostly paint people who are around you, and being white, you painted white people so it seems like a question of practicality. But how much do you think this affects the message of your work and is it intentional?
Hahaha, um I think we as artists make work that means something to us. My family is white because well I am also white, I don’t think race has anything to do with my work. I am not really making my work, thinking… “is this going to be interpreted as racially fueled”. Nor do I think well I better be politically correct by including someone I don’t know, or who doesn’t mean the same thing to me personally than one of my closest friends, for the sake of other people, and what they might think. It is not a conscious decision. I am just using the people in my life who have some sort of relationship with me that I want to capture. I also don’t think that color really means anything in my work, as everyone becomes a different color from their original state anyways… people become blue or pink or green or purple. If it matters to someone, or affects the message for them, it says more about them, than it does about me or my work.
What do you feel your current inspirations and influences are?
Right now relationships, self image, and perceptions of other people, are huge themes in my new work. To just touch on some personal life stuff that I have been going though, I have just exited a 5 year relationship with someone, which has made me ask a lot of questions of myself. And I think its certainly a fueling force behind a lot of the ideas in my new body of work.
If you could have dinner with any 4 people from the past, present or future who would they be?
Hmm, probably my grandmas who I never really got the chance to know. Probably chose to hang out with them at my age, that would be really cool. Also probably Van Gogh and Matisse, because they’re bad ass.
For more from Jen Mann, go to jenmann.com