Jen Mann: “I find relationships the most fascinating, and the relationship you have with yourself…”

Jen Mann’s work takes that all too familiar feeling of what lies on the other side of our computer screens in the form of likes and emojis and presses it into paint. Sometimes her artwork quite literally features this now permanently ingrained, social media iconography, such as a ‘winky face’, lighting up a subject’s features, while other compositions simply just embody that impending feeling of isolation you get when communicating mostly through Instagram. Her work poignantly brings to surface the complexity that is individual identity in a world where we have the capability to digitally self-construct our own narratives, composing through online photos our own fictions. In her series Q & A, we see individuals haunted by the phrases projected across their faces, phrases like, “Not The One” and “Just Fine”. These words seem to be radiating out of a computer screen that sits facing the subjects, as if to reveal the traces of emotions left behind once the words have been sent via social media. Were these words sent to them, did they send these words to someone else? Mann asks, “Who am I compared to you? Who are you compared to me?” She is interested in how we understand each other; how authentically, or rather, inauthentically we portray ourselves to the rest of the world.

Mann’s use of colour is distinct and strategic, as each unnatural hue manipulates the painting’s atmosphere, invoking sharp emotions. There is a brightness and beauty present in her work, but behind every delicious-looking cake and glitter-speckled face, there is a hint of darkness hidden. In her piece Cult of Femininity, the woman (who is the artist herself) is surrounded by happy shades of pink along with shiny surfaces and pretty glitter. However, the look on her face is not one of enjoyment. She appears despondent as she looks away from the viewer. Is she avoiding eye contact with us, or does she not even notice our presence? It is as if she is in another place, isolated from her surroundings. There is a familiar uncertainty present; one that each of us has felt in certain moments in our own lives. Being part of Mann’s series Self Absolved, the work holds this notion of uncertainty, or perhaps more of a self-discovery, a journey searching for our identity, the essence of our uniqueness.
As part of the same series, her piece Venus glows with neon red lights with Mann posing nude as the muse, creating multiple silhouettes and shadows. Experimenting with this notion of the male gaze, Mann reclaims her identity as female by becoming her own muse. The use of the triple silhouette alludes to the idea of having multiple personas, one that is truly you and one you intentionally put on display; the image of how you want others to see you. However dark, her work is not without a sense of humour. Paintings like Do You Like Meow? offer us a satirical cynicism that humorously points out the lunacy in certain interactions. Mann’s clever word play and the powerful sentiment present in her artwork together beautifully capture the never-ending struggle for satisfaction in self-identity. (text by Christina Nafziger)

AMM: What prompted you to take up art in the first place?

JM: It seems so long ago I can’t even remember deciding. It’s always been a part of who I am, and it was a natural progression.

AMM: Your work is deeply personal, indeed a recent solo show “Q/A” and your newest body of work, “self absolved” are centered around questioning yourself. Where do you think the nature of your self-questioning is coming from?

JM: I have always been very introspective, and also very interested in relationships and identity. I find relationships the most fascinating, and the relationship you have with yourself as well. My newest series of paintings, “self absolved” is a look at the creation of the idea of ‘self identity’, and the curation of one’s identity. We are always changing, keeping parts of ourselves alive, and letting other parts die. In this series I look at cultural references, the media, new technologies, and social media, in a coming of age tale of sorts. Creating a visual diagram of self, and maybe through that, a loss of self. Like when you say a word over and over, it loses all meaning, does that also happen when you look too closely at self, the way our generation is so prone to do?

AMM; You’ve highlighted “self”, relationships and identity, whereas previously concepts of feminism, beauty, dreamscapes and even existential philosophy have featured; are they still important to your work?

JM: Most definitely. These themes of existentialism, femininity, feminism, surface vs substance (beauty vs content) and identity, are integral to my overall body of work. My series “self absolved” is heavily saturated in these main concepts. Paintings like “how am I not myself”, “endless loop”, and “wet dreams” deal with existential thought; what am I, why do I exist, and what is life. Whereas paintings like “cult of femininity”, “men are from Mars, women are your Venus” and “they see me rollin they haytin’ “ deal with feminine themes, beauty, and essentially are quite feminist. Because this new series focuses on the self, does not mean that it doesn’t focus on these main themes of my work, but instead gives me a bigger better platform to discuss things that are important to my “self” haha, as I not only explore my identity as a human being, but also my identity as an artist.

AMM: In regard to technologies and social media – these have possessed the whole generation and made it dependent. What is your opinion of social media – what do you think is bad and good about it? Does it encourage us to be superficial in our understanding of who we are?

JM: At this point it is hard to exist without social media and technology, in some form, permeating your life and relationships. Whether it’s texting your friends, curating your instagram, or creating an online profile of yourself trying to meet “the one” – social media has become a part of our first world human culture. My opinion is that it is definitely not healthy for humans as animals to be so sedentary, and alone; something that technologies are making easier and easier for us to be – shop from the convenience of your bed, you don’t need to actually see or talk to your friends, just txt them short quips, shortening and shortening everything until we are only sending emojis. Human contact and physical activity is integral to our overall wellbeing and happiness. Right now social media and technology is an unavoidable evil. My work isn’t really making critiques on social media, but maybe making satire of our culture, and how we use it. Our generation has been sold everything we have in our lives, from our lifestyle, friends groups, and self identity to our toilet paper. We have been sold this idea of “individualism” : “you’re unique, special, different”, and so we go out, and look for how we are different, and special, and end up feeling like no one understands us, no one “gets us”, which inevitably leaves us feeling alone, and unhappy. The media sells us happiness, because we don’t get it from ourselves and connections to others anymore, we get it from the things they sell us, the next achievement, graduation, all inclusive vacation, backpacking across Europe, posting photos with significant other on a beach, photos with the wedding party, the wedding, the baby photos – social media has found a way to use each other to sell things to each other. The idea of happiness, sold to you from your friends, constantly, on any day, right from your news feed; smiling faces of happy people, ‘really doing something’ with their lives. Your “friends” you never see or talk to, but who you know everything going on in their curated lives. I’m fascinated by the complexity of how technology and social media affect the psyche, and our identities, how we cope, and communicate.

AMM; Your artistic video on your website homepage is very sensual and mesmerising. We think it is a truly amazing piece about you as a person and your work in general which touches deeply. Could you share some thoughts on the creation of this short film and how it came about?

JM: The film was a collaboration between my ex boyfriend Cameron Bryson and I, and it roughly covers two years in my life as I create work and sort through my thoughts. He is a cinematographer, and wanted to do a side project about my work, so we did. I’m glad you like it. It is a very personal look at my life.

AMM: You mentioned that ‘we are always changing, keeping parts of ourselves alive, and letting other parts die’ as well as saying that the short film about you covers roughly two years of life and work. If you were to create a new video of your present work and life, how different would it be?

JM: It would look significantly different, but maybe only to me. I no longer live in that studio for one. I now have a great big studio where I live with my partner in the Junction, and where he also has a music studio. I occasionally host residencies at my studio for artists from around the world to come for a month and create work here in Toronto. I still spend long days painting, and my practice is relatively similar, but since the video came out in Jan of 2016, I have moved twice, my parents sold my childhood home, I have ended a relationship, and started one, lost and gained friends, and gone on many adventures. Often the people around you can come to define you, and we outgrow relationships, with no bad feelings, it is important to allow yourself to change, and to let go of the past as we grow.

AMM: Do you create to understand or do you express what you have already learned? Or is it some combination of both?

JM: I usually write things down to understand what I’m thinking. Once I write lists, and poems, and short stories, I come up with images and titles that sort out the ideas, and more accurately convey the idea than my words can do. Then I paint them.

AMM: Is the end result more important than the process?

JM: Usually the ideas are more important to me than the finished pieces, but the process of painting is only a very small part of the process in my work. Ideas, writing, planning, thumbnails, photoshoots, photoshop… there’s so much that goes on first.

AMM: What thoughts and impressions do you imagine the viewers retain after looking at your artworks?

JM: I welcome any thoughts and impressions, but I couldn’t begin to imagine how someone else sees the world.

AMM: Is there an artwork of which you are most proud? If so, why?

JM: Hm, I’m not sure proud, but definitely I have some favorites. Usually they’re the ones I’m currently working on, have just finished, or the one I’m about to start. “Men are from Mars women are your Venus”, “The facade”, “plz <3 Me”, “I don’t feel blue I feel delft blue”, “Wet dreams”, “How am I not myself”, “Not The One”, “Wall Flower”, “True blue”, “Self portrait as a reflection”. These are some of my favorites.

AMM: In regards to your work which is on the cover of this Summer Issue – “heart eyes emoji”: you have a slightly similar work but with a sad emoji from your solo debut at Cordesa Fine Art in Los Angeles which on your website is described in a 2016 Artsy review as being:
“… At once unsettling and humorous, this interrupted portrait points to the shorthand ways we share our thoughts through premade symbols, which do not always get to the heart of who we really are.” Is there a link between the two works “heart eyes emoji” and “sad emoji”? Would you like to share more thoughts on the “heart eyes emoji” work?

JM: They are somewhat of a pair. They both show sides of myself, and ways I hide who I truly am, and my emotions. One is being goofy and fun and playful. The other is experiencing pain and worry. Neither show a real face but instead a face for the public; glamorized, unconfrontational, ingestible, consumer emotions.

AMM: What does success mean to you?

JM: I’m still not really sure. Humans are prone to always want more than what they have… the next step, goal etc. I think success for me is connecting with people, if I had to really nail it down.

AMM: If you had all the time in the world and unlimited financial means, would you create the same art, or would you create something different?

JM: I would probably be doing exactly the same thing right now.

AMM: Is there any piece of advice you’d like to share with our readers or any inspiring quote that has stuck with you throughout your career?

JM: You are the one who dies at the end of your life, do what you love and be happy because your life is for you, not for anyone else.

Find out more about the artist: www.jenmann.com

Introduction text written by Christina Nafziger, interview by Maria Zemtsova for ArtMaze Mag.