Have you ever wondered what post-internet zombie pop might sound like? I hadn’t either. I had no concept for that apparent musical genre. And yet, when I entered the exhibition space of Other Sister, I knew the description was spot on. Gremlin noises, synthesizers, and ambiguous verbal soundscapes are the bread and butter of Jen Mann’s musical group and pop culture persona Other Sister.
Of course, Other Sister isn’t a real band. Created by Toronto-based artist Jen Mann and curated by David Liss, the conceptual, multi-media exhibition at Arsenal Contemporary Toronto is the ambitious product of three years of work, and it shows. The band—consisting of Mann and two of her childhood friends (who are sisters)—could be mistaken as the focal point of this project, featured in a slew of posters, merchandise, music videos, and more. The volume and the scale of Other Sister alone are impressive. Thanks to this volume of works and a commitment to the details, Other Sister shines in its world-building. Viewers are easily absorbed into this world and thus made to participate in the message by buying into the persona of Other Sister, despite knowledge of its inauthenticity.
Entering the main space, I was quickly struck by two things. The first was the comedic element, the playfulness of it all. You can see it at all levels baked into the exuberant fashions, little jokes, and parodies of real-life media consumption and production. The second: I was successfully creeped out.
The seemingly never-ending row of dolls was delightfully disturbing. The zombie pop floating in from the corner only furthered this. The colossal magazine covers of the band were so large and vital that it felt like I had a million eyes on me at once. My unease, I think, was a sign that the concept worked. I felt like I was in the penthouse suite of a narcissistic celebrity, full of self-gratifying portraits and evidence of corporate manufacture. Even the classic stark-white gallery walls tied this together, simulating that luxury minimalist home décor devoid of personality.
Other Sister’s faux magazine covers are particularly well executed. From afar, these appear to be digital prints, however, close examination reveals the inherent falsity of the medium: oil on canvas. My favourite details in these magazine covers are the black and white barcodes, which serve as a reminder of the commodification of image while being squiggly and imperfect—a sure sign of the painter’s hand.
These magazine covers sit on the fence between being obviously constructed and dupes of digital work. The painted elements, especially the lettering, draw attention to the falseness of appearance while the style imitates magazine photography by simulating a shallow focus and airbrushed skin. The Rolling Stones cover is notably a fantastic imitation that sits on this fence. Nearly everything about it evokes a Rolling Stones magazine. The neon light backdrop, the posing of the band, the contrast lighting. And next to the softer, more-elegant, more-pastel (though not quite pastel) Vanity Fair, it’s such a perfect imitation that you want, you need to buy into its veracity.
In the middle of the space hangs a giant fake magazine spread containing a fake interview of the band, with a glittery-faced cover image on the front and a somewhat familiar advertisement concept on the back (think Chanel ad but with the AI android who is plotting your downfall). The tone of the interview itself is so spot on as well, using that sort of surface level inauthenticity we all are used to hearing celebrities regurgitate, with a few hilarious winks to the exhibition audience sprinkled in. The magazine effectively exemplifies the themes of Other Sister as it elicits notions of the self as brand, the commodification of identity, and the illusion of authenticity. This is markedly compelling to those of us viewers with pre-smartphone childhoods, who consumed much of pop culture through such magazines—as well as through music videos.
The video performance, which takes place in a dark room in the far corner of the exhibition, is comprised of three separate projections on three of the four walls. Standing in this room, surrounded by the videos is overwhelming and intoxicating. The bombardment of zombie pop and visual information is uncomfortably parallel to the media onslaught of daily contemporary life.
Is it supposed to be funny or serious? I think that it’s funniest if you take it a little seriously. And Mann’s masterful world building allows us to take it quite seriously. By injecting sources of verisimilitude throughout the exhibition—like the tone of the magazine interview or the actual merchandise—we’re better able to appreciate the joke. There’s a joke in there for everyone; some are hidden in the details of magazine cover text, others in the parody of masterpiece paintings. By its nature, Other Sister is also a comedy of existentialist dread, if that’s your thing.
Sometimes the joke is on us, the media literate audience, who despite being so, buy into the corporate gaze. Mann writes as herself—her Other Sister self—in the fake magazine interview: “Everything is intentional, but it’s also meaningless, everything and nothing forever simultaneously.” It’s a line that sounds as if the corporate machine ate Alice in Wonderland and spat it back out. And it perfectly encapsulates the everyday performance of living in a post-internet, social media heavy world.
It’s important to remember that the project isn’t about Other Sister so much as Other Sister is the means by which we can understand marketing and consumerism. The corporate gaze is real and very present in the media we consume, the media we create, and even within our senses of self. Other Sister isn’t real… or is it? Maybe it’s both. Does it matter? Does anything matter anymore?
I could not find better words to sum up Other Sister than those in the fake interview: “a scream into the void with glitter and icing on top.”
Olivia Mariko Hsuen-Ferris
Humans have used art as a way to explore the idea of self since the beginning. From the earliest cave paintings, the first civilizations in Mesopotamia and Ancient Egypt, the birth of Modern Art through the likes of Rembrandt and Vincent Van Gogh, to a commodification of self first championed by Andy Warhol.
In the present day, social media, selfie culture and corporate interests have added a new lens in which we see ourselves and the world. Canadian artist Jen Mann uses this notion as the starting point for a new solo exhibition at the Arsenal Contemporary in Toronto. Other Sister is the title of the show and the name of a fictional girl-pop band that Mann and several friends created to comment on the mixed vocabulary of fact and fiction.
On display is an immersive series of paintings, sculptures, merchandise and video installations that represents the band in various faux-settings. Barbie dolls, magazine covers for real publications, such as FADER and i-D, to paintings that glamorize the sisters fabricated lives. Identity is no longer reserved for intimate relationships to family members and friends, but rather a product in itself. A product that is to be commodified and sold en masse within this paradigm. “Our value,” according to a press release on the show, “is determined by our ability to produce and consume.”
from ancient Egypt to well-known self-portraits by Rembrandt, Van Gogh, and Frida Kahlo, over time and circumstance the purpose and means of representation shift and change. With the rise to dominance of advertising media and consumer-driven economic models during the 1970s and ‘80s, artist Andy Warhol presciently recognized the potential of the self to be commoditized and transformed into a marketable ‘brand’. Today, representation of the self and identity are often defined through the intrusive and distorted lens of media technologies and corporate culture. We knowingly accept and perpetuate fabricated illusions and manipulations of truth, seduced by our desires to consume and be consumed.
For her project Other Sister, Toronto-based artist Jen Mann has constructed an elaborate, fictional narrative that enticingly engages, as it simultaneously critiques our contemporary culture of self-representation. ‘Other Sister’ is the persona and name of the girl-pop group that consists of the artist and two of her friends that are sisters. On display are ambitious series’ of works in a range of media that include painting, sculpture, sound, video, performance, merchandise and social media components, all convincingly designed to represent the band. The exhibition playfully mixes vocabularies of art and marketing, and confuses boundaries between fact and fiction. Enter and exit through the gift shop where a vinyl record produced by the band, and other related merchandise is available for purchase. Within the gallery spaces the alluring made up faces and costumes of the band members are lusciously rendered in billboard-scale paintings resembling luxury ads and glossy magazine covers. A viewing room presents several of the band’s self-produced music videos. All of it real, all of it for sale, all of it produced by the artist – and at the same time, as viewers eventually discover, ‘Other Sister’, the band, is not a real entity. All is not as it seems in the world of marketing and promotion. Yet, astonishingly, these days we fully accept that there is no truth in advertising. We knowingly suspend our disbelief and happily ‘buy into’ the fantasy because it makes us feel good, and we consummate that emotion through the ultimate affirmative expression of our culture: the financial transaction. Mann has generously provided us with a range of options to suit all budgets, from masterful paintings and expertly-crafted sculptures for the discerning collector or institution, to the album, the apparel, and inexpensive pins and stickers. We are all invited to participate!
However, this display, this project, is not really about the band, ‘Other Sister’. While we may allow ourselves to be caught up in the fantasy, the items on display reside within the space and context of cultural critique. Beneath the convincingly seductive surfaces, other discourses are at play. ‘Other Sister’, the exhibition, is a conceptual experience meant to confront our, and the artist’s complicity in a culture of manipulation, false promise and illusion. The vulnerable surfaces of desire reflect more complicated emotions and fears, underlying social and economic conditions, as well as other dynamics and manipulations of power and spirit.
Since Warhol’s time, from pop music and film, to the proliferation of contemporary art fairs and biennales, art and culture have become multi-billion-dollar global industries that function effectively as agents of capitalist economic systems. Given his commercial background, Warhol was among the pioneers in merging the vocabularies of art and commerce, advertising and marketing, models that are by now standard in today’s arts and cultural industries. Innovatively making use of the tools and technologies available at the time, he played upon the desires and fantasies embodied by consumer and celebrity culture to fabricate and market identities and accompanying mythologies that blurred fact and fiction.
In our current era, with the pervasiveness of technologies and entrenched consumer-driven economic systems, distinguishing fact from fiction, truth from reality, recognizing boundaries between public and private space, has become even more complex. Where and how do we find our place in the world? How do we perceive ourselves, and relate and connect to others, when reality and identity are wholly defined through the lens of economic value and the corporate gaze? Where identity may have once held deep meaning based around intimate relationships to family, community, history, geography, it is now a product itself. Identity and private information are commodities to be bought, sold or stolen. Our value to society is determined by our ability to produce and consume. Reflecting the dominant paradigm of their culture, through ‘Other Sister’, Mann constructs identity through an alluring advertising aesthetic of desirability and consumption. With the right industry marketing and promotion, it is perfectly feasible that ‘Other Sister’ could be the next big thing. Whether or not they even exist doesn’t really matter.
The story of ‘Other Sister’ is a layered, narrative fiction; an ambitious cultural project that challenges us to question our role and our agency in the evolution of our individual and collective identities. How do we represent ourselves when every aspect of our lives are monetized, monitored and transformed into product and brand? With ‘Other Sister’ Jen Mann treads a delicate line that, perhaps, we all do, as participants in cycles of consumption, and raises uncomfortable questions around the cultural conditions of our time that shape and define identity.
American Art Collector Magazine
Painter Jen Mann’s new show is a twisty-turny spiral into an almost absurd amount of meta reflection—paintings of other paintings, of art galleries, mirrors, fake magazine covers, film stills of films that don’t exist, self-portraits of self-portraits—but deep down in her hyper-colored world of self-satire and fourth-wall-breaking imagery is a mirror that is aimed not at Mann, but the viewer.
“I’ve not found myself in my paintings, and I’m not entirely interested in finding myself. I’m mostly interested in the concept of self,” the Toronto-based painter says. “So it comes down to not who I, Jen Mann, am, but what is our culture’s fascination with the self and how can I frame that in a way that’s a happy kind of illusion? I’m always continuously searching for meaning, not so much who we are, but what it means to be alive. I could make a narrative on Instagram but if I look at it closely enough do I really see who I am in it? It’s almost dissociative. It’s hard to know where life ends and a weird simulation begins.”
The show, which is now open at Gallery Jones in Vancouver, Canada, is titled Metonymy,which is a literary term for a word meant to invoke another idea, but with a linked lineage between the two concepts. The common example used for metonymy is “suits” used for any kind of business executive. Executives wear suits, and “suits” is a casual word to describe them. It’s an elliptical sort of substitution, which is what brought Mann to the word. For her new show she’s objectifying herself to the point she becomes an object, and then the objects also relate back to her and her attempt to rationalize the concept of “self”—like the word itself, her motives are elliptical and create an interesting loop of ideas.
The show includes many self-portraits, which Mann is at ease painting. “It doesn’t feel like me, to be honest. Think of all the people you see in your day…your partner, your dog, your coworkers. My own face seems sort of foreign compared to everyone else. I feel like just a character in my life,” she says. Not only is she painting herself, but she’s also painting herself nude and in intimate and revealing moments. “My work is reflective of myself. I’m really open and honest in person. I do hide behind a lot of humor. On first glance it looks very serious, but it’s often self-deprecating. For my magazine cover paintings, I just thought it would be funny to do that and make all the titles into jokes.”
Works in the show include The Kiss, which is a painting of a painting hanging in a gallery. Adding another level to the work, the painting within The Kiss is a film still of a movie that doesn’t exist except as a movie trailer. The trailers themselves, with titles such as Loneliness & Desire and Love & Romance, will be part of the show as well. The trailers are almost esoteric parodies of HBO’s Girls, but they wink at the audience to help tell Mann’s story about the concept of self. Additionally, she’s also made handcrafted dolls in her likeness, including using her own hair, to punctuate themes of objectification and branding—“I’m quite literally selling myself,” Mann says. “And that’s the point.”
Metonymy will remain on view through December 7. —
Comprised of new large scale hyperreal paintings and short films serving as trailers to features that don’t exist, Metonymy explores how we turn ourselves into brands or 'objects of self' through the internet and social media.
The series looks at our self-obsessed culture, concepts of celebrity, artifact, and reality. In Metonymy, everything is an advertisement; trailers, magazine covers, posters, dolls, gallery show installations, stills from the trailers. It's hard to tell what is real, and what is not. even within the trailers themselves, people play roles of themselves, but everything is cast and scripted.
“Mann, who is known for large hyperrealistic self-portraits, has delved deeper into herself or perhaps beyond herself... and maybe beyond some of her viewers. Her work has always centered around self, and for Mann, that means partaking in the self-absorbed culture of social media. This show is a first for Mann, as she takes a departure into other mediums, film and sculpture. The show centers around the idea of the self as an object or celebrity, separate from the real self. She creates a fake self that emerges out of many different narratives. Mann is literal at times and taunts the viewers. There are 5 films which she plays on repeat. You’re watching trailers to movies that you never see in full length, and from my understanding, do not actually exist. Each film looks at different parts of the artist's self, and her different struggles. These extremely personal fictional narratives, seem more than fiction, and less-than reality. The last video in the set is a documentary about Mann making the 4 previous films to which you just saw the trailers, but this documentary too seems real and unreal, comical even. It takes viewing the whole body of work to really give you a sense of the depth of this series. There are paintings of paintings of film stills from movies that do not exist in galleries they never showed in…… if you understood that I applaud you.
Mann's tendency towards the meta and existential is in full force here. There are paintings of film stills, paintings of movie poster covers, incredibly uncanny and totally creepy fully articulating anatomically correct dolls of herself as each film star, paintings of herself as a celebrity gracing the cover of many different magazines. Mann renders herself something more and simultaneously less than 'self', and also fully placed in the millennial subconscious. She is being bought and sold, A brand, an object, an artifact… Mann is everywhere, and it's all about her, but somehow none of it seems real, and none of it seems like it takes itself too seriously.
This show is a look at a person who struggles deeply and shows everything but also conversely hides everything below the surface. In Mann's work, the surface is smooth slick finished polished finessed. But her content, the work itself deals with so much more, a troubled person dealing with love and intimacy, the realities of being a woman, an artist, a millennial, and the struggles she is going through, and just like in real life, her sarcastic and self deprecating humour is in her work, laughing, if you’re clever enough to spot it. Mann's true thesis in this work though is so subtle and perhaps most of her viewers wouldn’t even see it. She is depicting our culture, society, and how nothing is real, news, media, politics, not even the narratives we believe about ourselves. The stories we tell, the identity we curate, nothing is real - and just like her paintings of paintings that do not exist, somehow these things that are not real, are somehow still just as real on their own, they become something outside of ourselves. "
Look closely, and you can see the human touch. Toronto’s Jen Mann makes work that appears so much like an altered photograph, you’d have to put nose to canvas to tell otherwise. Sometimes the oil-on-canvas work is done all in deep blue hues, or pinks, almost like an Instagram filter, but with such hyperreal command, it can be like looking at stills from a film. Endless Quest For Myself (ie)is Mann’s newest monograph, over 200 pages of what she notes as, “poems, essays, short stories, one liners, paintings, sketches and photographs.” This arrangement fits the cinematic quality, as well as the book’s scene-oriented editing. Paintings are surrounded by narration, little thoughts that relate to the works, not so much directly, but in an ethereal way. Mann’s ability to create almost photo-perfect works are playful nods to technology and language, with marks reminiscent of touch-screen scribbles atop her most stunning works. Even the cover, a vibrant work with a "plz <3 me" feels as if a graffiti artist had tagged the works when Mann left the studio. And yet some of the text-based works, like Not the One, appear to be almost projections. In the end, Endless Quest For Myself (ie) touches on these dichotomies, the beautiful and the damaged, the elegant and the playful. Two versions are available: A regular release, and a limited edition of only 100 books with a unique Mann-designed bookplate signed by the artist. —EP
I’m unaccustomed to writing about topics and much more familiar with addressing an audience with images, and maybe a one liner. Although I love words, formal writing is unfamiliar to me, so bear with my disjointed scatter-brained and very opinion based piece.
My work, if you are unfamiliar, is an attempt at rationalizing some idea of identity in a modern digital age, and speaks to relationships, self, and technology as general topics. I typically use visual puns and humour as ways of talking about sometimes deeper, painful issues.
I think what I want to talk about specifically here, is something I think is of real relevance right now. Female identity, and the female gaze. I don’t really know how to jump right into this huge topic and I will inevitably miss things that I want to include, but alas, here goes…
I grew up only having brothers, and my one brother who was a year older than me, was my closest friend through most of my childhood. I didn’t have many female friends, I dressed like a tom boy and played sports. Needless to say, I didn’t really identify much as a ‘girl’, or what I was brought up to think of as ‘girly’ by society’s standards. I didn’t like dresses or the colour pink, because of the way they made me feel silly, or precious. So I was shocked, when, after finishing university and finally looking at my body of work, I realized most of what I was painting was pink, and very girly. I addressed over and over my identity as being female. I didn’t like the word feminist, because of the connotations that people put on that word. But I was fiercely feminist. I’ve never really felt like I identified with that popular culture version of femininity, and always idolized men and my male relationships and friendships. I realized I didn’t take women as seriously as men, and had many of the same stereotypes about them that the media portrayed. It’s weird coming to the realization that you systematically have learned to think of yourself as worse, or worth less than someone else. Self-hate, self-disrespect.
The first time I noticed being treated differently to my male peers was when I entered the art world. Comments people have made actually blew me away. “You’re a pretty blonde girl, why do you make sad paintings?” or “Well, you’re lucky you’re pretty, you can paint yourself.” Why is it that female looks matter so much to people? If I were an ‘unattractive’ woman, I would be painting the same things and if I were a man, no one would ever say that to me. My paintings have very little to do with the ‘surface’ and much more to do with the undertones and ‘substance’. Though my work is realistic, the paintings are not about the technique of realism, or the physical surface, or beauty of the painting, but rather the ideas within the paintings.
I think the first compliments I can ever remember are based on looks. Women hear, “you’re pretty” far before they hear, “you’re smart”, because it’s thought of as a higher compliment. I liked being liked and told I was pretty, so I thought it was part of my identity, and thought about looks as being important in some way to getting people to like me. This is the male gaze, but through my own eyes. “How do I look to him?” My sense of self-worth was hinged on this general idea that I was valuable for looking desirable to the general ‘him’. I was writing a short story about my life and realized that I’d written myself in as the love interest to the leading man… not the main character. Because the ‘ideal’ woman, is the support character to the leading man. What is the female gaze if it is no longer female at all?
The problem is so deep, that it can go completely un-noticed. You don’t even know you’re disrespecting yourself or women. People think they can cat call at a girl “looking fine!” and because they’re saying something nice, it can’t be offensive. “You’re a pretty blonde girl, why do you make sad paintings” – a.k.a. “You’re pretty and blonde, so you can’t possibly understand anything sad or existential, because to me, you are surface deep. But I called you pretty, so you can’t be offended.” I think the first step to change is actually, and I mean actually seeing and acknowledging that we see and treat women differently, before any change can happen. I know we keep making progress, I hope that if I have daughters one day, they value themselves for so much more than their appearance, and they can be the main character in the self-narrated story of their lives.
Art Maze Magazine
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...
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
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“I am always exploring the world around me: how we relate to each other, how we understand each other, and the honesty of relationships, or maybe the dishonesty,” says up-and-coming Canadian artist Jen Mann. Now, for her U.S. solo debut at Cordesa Fine Art in Los Angeles, “Sweet Nothing” features a selection of candy-colored paintings from her recent series “Self Absolved.”
Working from photographs she has taken, Mann’s paintings explore identity, femininity, and an individual’s relationship to society, often by using lines from her journal as a jumping-off point. Mann works with oil on canvas in a hyper-real style, saturating her images with color. In portraits, nudes, and still lifes, she unfurls a coming-of-age tale across mid- to large-scale canvases. The images of young girls and women are painted in a vibrant palette of pink and peach, with references to notions of nostalgia, pop culture, and our age of selfies.
Yet Mann also confronts what she sees as the hypocrisy in the way that society defines love, desire, and self-image. Among the works on view is upside down smile emoji (2016), featuring an upside-down smile emoji overlaid onto the back of a young girl’s head. 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.
In another work, a still life titled Donut Diet (2016), an array of sugary donuts on iridescent cellophane spells out: “DONUT DIET.” The dark irony in this tableau is tempered by the over-the-top absurdity of these donuts: With their mounds of sugary frosting, they look practically poisonous—but also delicious. Mann builds this tension between beauty and harshness into all her works. “There’s a slickness and a beauty to it that kind of draws you in,” she has said, “and then there’s something maybe a little painful when you eventually look into the image and connect with it.”
she does the city
In a lofty studio beside The Hoxton, there’s a portrait hanging on a wall of a woman in slimy glitter. Her eyes dart away from the camera and her reflection bounces off mirrors like she’s swimming in a pool of glass. Her pigtails are tied with ribbon, adding a weight of innocence to a grown woman in her late twenties. What looks pretty on first impression is now uncanny. Figurative painter Jen Mann does this on purpose; the woman in her new series is her.
“It’s called Cult of Femininity,” Mann says. It’s one of several photographs that Mann will paint onto canvas and paint with oil. Preparing for her next series, Mann is an artist who understands what it means to be a woman in the Internet age: Painfully self-aware, naïve and demoralized. She tells this story in her new large-scale portraiture series; a collection of subtitled movie scenes, moody self-portraits and reverberating light projections. She’s the lead character in a foreign movie about her life, documenting herself through degrees of separation from a person, photograph to painting.
“We narrate our lives through the Internet. Self-Absolved is about how we understand identity through that portrayal of ourselves.”
It’s not a new revelation, but it’s a relevant one that most women obsess over. Scroll through Instagram and you’ll find a stream of feminist quotes, movie stills, outfits and selfies. We find pleasure in seeing things that have patterns in online avatars (e.g., fonts, white borders, copy and content pillars). Mann plays with representation; how we define ourselves in the Internet age and what genuinely holds meaning.
In a portrait cloaked in cobalt blue, Mann captures the stark, moody moments of being a woman. One can’t help but make a reference to The Virgin Suicides; the dream-like montages that made audiences fall in love with the tormented Lisbon sisters. Mann’s repeated use of blue sticks out in all of her paintings; a colour many women can associate with Maggie Nelson’s Bluets – exploring the restraints of love and suffering in the colour blue. Juxtaposing beauty with ugly in each piece, Mann repeatedly forces audiences to wonder, Is she liberated by the representation of femininity or disgusted by it?
In another photograph, Mann floats with her head above water in a bathtub filled with rose petals. French subtitles translate to: I wonder if life is as romantic as what I dreamed. “We like to imagine ourselves as the main character in a foreign film,” Mann tells me. “I’m dealing with human issues, and painting very literal things or puns to make my paintings relatable to people. Audiences see meaning more clearly with things that are representational.”
Mann describes how femininity projects onto women. I want to know why she purposely makes audiences feel so uncomfortable with femininity. “Anything that’s ugly in today’s society is alluring. We grew up with bombarded by advertising with slick commercial ideals of beauty, and we’re attracted to it because we’re accustomed to it. But we’re also repulsed by it and want something that’s a little off.” Self-Absolved shines a light on that; the meticulous growing pain of achieving some idea of “uniqueness” in a society where nobody wants to be the same.
Being a kill-joy, I can’t help but preoccupy my thoughts with the dark side of Mann’s work. Continuing her theme of existentialism from her previous series, Self-Absolved caters to the optimist and pessimist in all of us. Aware of this, Mann isn’t pretentious or high-brow about her work; quite contrary. She’s laughing. “I want people to get it. I want people to be engaged with my work, instead of having pretentious work that nobody gets. I want them to enjoy it for whatever they enjoy it for, and if they appreciate it purely on an aesthetic level, that’s fine. If they enjoy it because they relate to it, even better.” Mann says.
Like a word repeated too many times, Mann forces us to consider the meaning of the word femininity over and over again. Capturing the attention of her audiences with large-scale portraiture, romantic hues of pinks and blues and shifty eyes, the work itself holds a stark realism that’s beautiful and disgusting. The only thing left to do is to laugh at ourselves
Ask Jen Mann where she likes to spend the majority of her time and the answer comes easily: “my studio.” Other answers, however, are not so quickly accessed. Mann’s continued foray into painting comes from a deep-seated love for existential philosophy, and working becomes a way to examine these sometimes difficult and often endless ideas. Still, despite such esoteric thinking, this type of processing works flawlessly for her. The Toronto-based painter creates stunning, hyper-realistic, pastel-colored works that look both comfortingly commercial and mysteriously melancholic. Enthusiastic, with dreamy, long blonde hair cascading down her back, she thrives when surrounded by her work, arm’s length from a paintbrush. All the time spent in her workplace has paid off with a solo show at Toronto’s Neubacher Shor Contemporary in November, a self-published book and thousands of Internet supporters. Jen Mann is poised to make a transcendent impact on the international art scene. —Jess Carrol
Juxtapoz Hyperreal, features a new generation of painters who have excelled at photorealism and hyperrealism, but have taken the mediums and injected them with new styles, techniques, ideas and individual personality