Jen Mann: Intimacy, brutal honesty and a hunt for magic

I finally had the chance to invade painter Jen Mann's studio with photographer Devon Little and had the most refreshing conversation while we shifted her canvases around the studio on the hunt for a good shot. Mann graduated from OCAD University in 2009 and now currently lives and works in Toronto. She's represented by a total of three galleries: Neubacher Shor Contemporary in Toronto, Walls.nl in Amsterdam and Rostad Edwards Gallery in Miami. We chatted about everything from surface versus substance, conservativeness in the Canadian art world and why artists are (sometimes) assholes.

What’s your first memory related to art?

I remember watching my dad and my brother coloring in a coloring book and getting super frustrated by not being able to color inside the lines. Guess now the joke's on them!  (laughs). My dad is a graphic designer/illustrator and I remember he would give us art classes on Saturdays and teach us perspective and colour wheels and I just thought he was so magical. I was entranced by his drawing.

What’s the most unexpected feedback you received in your career?

I’ve heard some really hilarious shit actually (laughs). At my last opening, somebody actually said: ‘You’re a pretty blonde girl, why are you making sad paintings?’. I couldn’t believe it. The entire show was all about surface and substance, what you see versus what’s underneath and not shown…  What people judge based on their surface versus who they really are. He missed the entire point of the show (laughs).

I feel that whole surface vs. substance discussion is so relevant nowadays too; with viewers being more interested in the artist’s image - what music they listen to, where they go out, who they know - than actually seeing the work itself.

Don’t even get me started on that! I was actually recently talking about this with someone who was saying that art used to be about exposing people to new ideas in order to expand their way of thinking. Today, instead, art is going down to the level of the masses. Art is just being made based on what the people want: something pretty for their walls, something that pops, usually culturally insignificant. Galleries tell their artists what to make because it sells, you know?  It stopped being about making work with meaning and started being mostly about making work that would sell. Commercial over intellectual. Which is why people come out of art school all conceptual and see what’s actually being sold and they’re like ‘What the fuck is everyone making!?’ (laughs)

What’s your process like?

It starts with a concept. I can’t make a painting if I don’t have an idea for one. Going over and over ideas can make my work become really precious to me.  After,  I shoot it, then I edit it all and then I go and paint it. When people ask me how long it takes for me to make a painting, well… the paintings themselves don’t take very long but the process - which is the most important part - usually does.

You’re currently working on a new series entitled ‘Self Absolved’. What’s it all about?

To ‘absolve’ is to rid yourself or something in a way. You know when you say a word too many times and suddenly it has no meaning to you? The more you look into yourself, the more you ask ‘Who am I? What am I? What does this mean?’, the more you disintegrate and are no longer you. It’s an absolving of identity. Can I absolve myself of myself? The title also references ‘self-absorbed’ which is what I think our society has become. We’re so obsessed with showcasing and documenting ourselves that we lose sense of who we are.

We also tend to look to the past to figure out our present.

We create our identities based on our memories of ourselves. For example, I’ll remember something from my childhood in a different way than my brother would. We were there at the same time, but memory isn’t like a recorder. It’s totally fluid, almost unreal. We edit our memory so much that we can suddenly completely forget certain parts of our lives.

Your work has a very ethereal vibe, do you use imagery from dreams?

I dream a lot, but I think the images mostly come from a dream-like state. I spend so much of my time just thinking and going crazy and coming up with all of these stupid, funny things. I also want to make life more magical than it is. I feel like we’re that Disney generation that has grown up but still wants that magic. I also think that’s one of the reasons we want to create ugly things. We’ve been bombarded with slick advertising our whole lives, so we want to make something that goes against it. It’s a bit of a rebellion. I think what I’m trying to do is to allow people who don’t necessarily know anything about art to approach the work and understand it through their own eyes. So my work has that commercial part that is slick and beautiful and you want to join in, but then you realize it’s a little bit meaner than that.

You sometimes integrate text into your pieces. What’s the purpose of this?

Text is always important for me because I usually come up with titles before actually making the work. Words are just necessary in some works. Projecting text that says  ‘Not The One’ on my face is like branding myself with words in a similar way that people brand you in reality. I want to allow myself to own the feelings that I have.

Social media plays a big part in that branding of identity.

Something that really frustrates me on Facebook - or really any social media platform - is that everybody just posts happy moments and things like ‘Look at how great my life is!’ …but that's not a true depiction of reality, everything peachy all the time. there are a lot of people that are hurting and don’t feel they can tell anyone because they’re just going to be accused of  complaining or ‘spreading negativity’. And that might be true, but there are a lot of people that need support and need to be reassured that they’re not alone. I find people connect with my work for that reason. Maybe the honesty, intimacy, and humor, that connects us.

Do you work a lot with commissions?

No. I can’t stand when people say to me: ‘Oh, but you know what you should paint? You should paint landscapes!’ ‘You should totally paint sailboats.’ … I mean, as soon as you learn how to paint, you can paint anything you want. The reason I paint what I do is not because I can, it’s because I want to.  I don’t necessarily think that technique is art. It’s a medium to get across what I want to express. If not, I could just be an illustrator or designer and make a lot of money… but I don’t want to be, so stop asking me to paint your shit! Go ahead and make it yourself, take a painting class. (laughs) Maybe I’m cynical, but life -for me - is a little bit meaningless. If you die at the end and get to say that was your life, then why not do exactly what makes you happy?

One of my questions was going to be ‘What’s your artistic pet peeve?’ And I think you’ve named at least a handful already.

Yes! (laughs)

How do you stay true to yourself in the face of this judgment and constant control from society?

I think people make it seem easier than it is. It’s really hard, especially when you’re trying to create art. There’s so much pressure and I feel like you just have to say fuck that. You need to be confident, you need to have a certain personality, and I think that’s why a lot of artists are assholes. Of course they’re assholes, they have to be! (laughs) People tend to judge anyone who’s doing something creatively because it seems like an easy cop-out job. They assume it’s not ‘real work’ in the ‘real world’ and that you have no responsibilities. But the truth is that, as an artist, you’re responsible for absolutely everything. You’re responsible for all of your business, timing, self-discipline, applying for grants, organizing everything, taxes, overhead costs, budgeting materials costs and still also trying to eat and live. Every single part of your business is you. You spend hours and hours coming up with ideas, painting, working… and I think people just see art as overpriced and a luxury. Sure, there may be no ‘real’ reason to buy art - or even to make art - but, through art,  there’s a huge benefit to culture in a society.

Why do you think the capacities of art go unrecognized?

There’s that element of ‘I could have done that’ and people making fun of dots on a canvas, but I think that the reason is that there are a lot of artist that are just copying stuff that already has been done before, and creating stuff that isn’t meaningful to them just so they can sell it. Which is why there’s this judgment towards artists that there’s no meaning to their work. And maybe it’s right for a large majority, but that’s a stereotype that’s created by galleries. The fact that they’re selling work makes art a commodity and once you’ve made art a commodity, then you’re making something that’s to be sold…  so people will make something that will sell. When it’s not for sale, art is pure as fuck. But once you start selling it, it becomes much more complex. It’s like this love-hate relationship, really. You want to keep making work but you also want to be able to eat and it’s like man, fuck this!

What do you think of the Canadian art scene?

It’s kind of a waste a bit, because there are a lot of grants for young artists but there’s just not a lot of people buying Canadian art and investing in young artists. Canada has a huge downfall in their conservativeness towards art. I’ve gone to art auctions for fun with friends and it’s all older people buying Group of Seven paintings. They spent millions last year on these paintings, and with that money they could have bought out every single exhibition that was shown by young artists in Toronto, and invested in the future of the Canadian art scene. But instead, they just bought these same paintings and traded them around and sold them for more money. It’s fine, go buy whatever you want but it’s like… This is an Andy Warhol. This is someone whose name you already  know, and that you’re going to buy anyway, so it doesn’t matter what the work is about or what it means culturally or what it means at all. You want this on your wall because it will make you cool or because it’s going to increase in value. Buy art because you like it! Buy art because it means something to you! Because you’re going to live with it! Sometimes people just have a lot of money and want to invest in art like you would with real estate. It becomes about markets instead about concepts or art at all. And it's a little sad - and it's kind of killing the art world, or maybe it's just changing into something I'm not proud to be a part of.

Then there’s also the aspect of over-intellectualizing a work of art.

I get it. There’s good stuff popping up in small galleries, I find in lots of galleries the art is unapproachable and alienating and sometimes it’s just gross-looking. Make whatever you want, but I  think that if you need to look at the artist statement on the wall to understand what the work is about, then the artist should be a writer and not a visual artist. Art should hold up on its own.

What advice would you give to aspiring creatives?

So I just did a talk at a university in New York and I made a list of five things that I would tell young artists:

1) Think. Set aside a time in your day to just think. Unlimited amount of time, no end goal… just give yourself the time to do absolutely nothing but think. It will allow you to come up with ideas that you wouldn’t otherwise, no pressure.

2) Write down your ideas and mean what you say. Think how you’d like someone to read them in like ten years.

3) Have manners. Don’t ask for anything without offering anything in return. If you want to reach out to someone for advice, don’t just expect them to help you and not give anything back. Invite them out for a beer… anything, really. Just be polite.

4) A word of warning: Unfortunately, it matters more who you know than how talented you are, so don’t burn any bridges.

5) A healthy body is a healthy mind. As a creative person, you’re always in your head and it’s easy to not want to do stuff or be creative. . If you are getting depressed, go be active. It’s crazy science: physical activity increases brain activity. Don’t stay inside. Fucking go outside and do stuff.

You can follow Jen Mann's work on her website and Instagram