“Art should never be for sale” – Polarizing words spoken by Jen Mann. The young Toronto realistic painter had a sit down with me for an interview, and I had my mind shattered (in a good way)! Take a look into the idea behind the highly conceptualized paintings of Mann’s work and give your perspective a gut-check.
Art in my belief is an idea that you share with other people to change their way of looking at things, or to expand their view, or to connect with people, or to understand the world. A nice photograph without an idea, is just a nice photograph. A painting without an idea is just a really nice painting. Art is something special, it’s a visual representation of the artist’s perspective, idea, emotion or philosophy. By putting a price tag on it, you can turn it into something completely different.
I’m a little disillusioned with in the art world because it’s all about “who’s the artist, who’s represented the artist, where have you shown, what price point are you selling at.” Art as a product takes the focus off of the idea, and puts it on the pedigree or provenance of the artist.
I’m not sure if art really is a product – but then I wonder, well how am I, as an artist supposed to make money if the work isn’t for sale.
I can see what you mean, there are buyers and people out there who purchase art, not because of an idea but because it looks great or it has a visual appeal to it. In your mind is there anything wrong with that?
Well, this thing that you’re talking about, I struggle with. Its surface vs. substance. The love for external beauty vs depth and meaning. As a kid – how do I say this, I was a pretty little girl. I had blonde hair, blue eyes, I was a cute little kid and that’s all I got praised on. My older brother on the other hand would get praise for accomplishments – a good grade on a math test, or making the sports team. I was very athletic too, and I was good at school, all I wanted were comments about that, or about how creative I was, but all I ever got was “oh you’re so pretty.”
Do you think that gender has a role to play in that?
It might, there’s definitely a gender issue rolled up in there, but growing up with this type of thing happening to me – This idea started to manifest itself into my art. I want people to know, and be drawn in by the fact that it’s skilled, that it’s really detailed and beautiful – but at the same time, that’s not what I want them to notice, because that’s not what it’s about.
There’s an idea behind your art – tell me more about that.
Yeah my work is highly conceptual. Before I even think about what I’m going to paint – I write in my journal. For example, there’s a bunch of self portraits in my series, “Self Portrait as a Reflection,” for example started as a picture that I took back in 2011. I wanted to become a mirror, I wanted to become a reflection of other people. I was imagining that we all look in the mirror at ourselves and we don’t really know who or what we are – the idea of “what is life, and what are we, or what makes me think – why am I alive?” There’s an idea that I am the same as you. Something weird happens when people are alone with a mirror and they just look at themselves, there’s a familiarity and at the same time a distance. It’s a weird and bizarre thought, but I wanted to portray that, underneath of it all we’re all the same. That I was becoming the viewer in some way, or reflecting them.
This was an existential thought that you had, and you wrote about it. Did the picture come first or second?
So first you wrote about this thought, then you took the picture, then you painted it? The idea, behind your series is that we’re all the same?
Yes, but it’s more than that too. Each painting in the last series I did, individually work on their own, but together they mean something entirely different. They kind of make a statement, they’re kind of sarcastic, cynical about human drama, life, suffering – there’s a cake that says “This was a mistake.” On the top. At the show I had a diptych called “You and Me Foreverz” and it was just meant to represent that all of this human drama, that the rest of the show is about, is just temporary and doesn’t mean anything because we’ll all die.
If this were a world where art wasn’t a product to be sold, does the competitiveness go away – how would you get your validation?
So I feel that I sometimes get the validation just from completing the work. I have a friend who said to me before a show “So who’s your target audience, anxious teenagers?” Of course not, they’re not the only people who experience feelings self-doubt or feeling not accepted, or insecure. One of the most gratifying things from my show was when people really connected with my artwork. Some of these people were 50 yr old women or middle aged men. of course not everyone got it, but when a woman who just went through a divorce comes up to me almost in tears and says “that Just Fine painting… I can’t even.” that is where I get my validation, when people connect with my work – and it can make them feel accepted, or less alone, or understood. That’s really the only goal.
I think one of the reasons we love art, or movies, or stories, or books. Is because we write morals into stories and movies, or happy endings – there’s a meaning to the story you’re reading, so that we can feel like we have meaning to our lives, even though there is no meaning. We live and we die. A Eulogy is for the people who are living to go on living, it’s to say that this person had a meaning to their life and therefore if I live well I will have a meaning to my life. But it doesn’t, it’s all kind of meaningless.
Your perspective is interesting and I’m going to play devil’s advocate. If life has no meaning, then why bother creating anything at all, or why bother putting meaning into your artwork?
Because for me, if life is meaningless, I want to do whatever makes me happy for as long as it makes me happy. And with my work, I am exploring my ideas on life. I think that’s all the stuff I’m asking. My art is about those questions. Why are we here? Why do I feel these emotions? It’s existential, I’ve always been that way – I just always ask these questions. I don’t necessarily have the answers. If I’m going to live this life that I don’t understand, why not try to ask these questions, explore the human condition and to try and make sense of it all?
I’m curious about you applying this philosophy of “there is no meaning” to your paintings. Do you think that you could ever paint something that has no idea behind it?
Well I have a series of watercolours that I’m doing called #yearinpaint, where I am doing one watercolour each day for an entire year. I’m so disillusioned with some parts of painting. Painting hyperrealism isn’t all “Ohhh I get to paint every day!” it’s more like “oh fuck” – it’s work. But this watercolour series I’m doing is all fun, it’s pure creation in the painting of it, not in the conception, or idea behind it. I don’t scrap any of the paintings, each day there is one painting, and that’s it. it’s all about the moment, it’s kind of like life you don’t get to take something back. I am enjoying the chaos of it, and trying to appreciate the moment of it, without any idea behind it. But in this, there is sort of a meaning hahah.
So you do seek external validation?
Yes, definitely for my artwork. I want people to get it, I want people to connect with it. That’s the kind of stuff that I think helps all people, we all look for that validation and acceptance.
What I dislike about the art world, which comes back around full circle is like when after my show people will come up to me and ask “how did the show go? how were sales?” – That’s not what it’s about. That’s not the metric of success as an artist or a person. So when people grade you on this in their mind, how much you sell your work for, and how many pieces you sell it’s as if it surpasses what the original connection to your work was.
Outside of art, how would you define success?
I think it’s important to just be happy with your life – without attachment to material things. The thing I keep telling myself is “don’t be afraid of failing” because i’ll never be truly creative if I’m afraid of failing. That’s something that I live my life by and my artwork reflects that.
Next up for Jen, she is looking at the way we build our identities – exploring how our perception of self develops over time. I for one can’t wait to see her next body of work.
You can find Jen on Facebook , Twitterand Instagram. If you want to connect to her directly, check out her website.
Mann’s work is represented by Neubacher Shor Contemporary (NSC) Art Gallery in Toronto
Interviewer: Rob Green