Why magic is real with Jenna Faye Powell

Jenna Faye Powell is a multifaceted artist and the Gallery Director at Forest City Gallery (in London, Canada). Her artwork portrays familiar scenes or objects yet always through a peculiar lens or juxtaposition. Take her Welcome to Chesterfield series, impressionistic paintings of a surreal suburban landscape. Jenna derives them from photographs of miticulously crafted miniature houses and landscape. The result is an almost nostalgic representation of suburbia. 

Yet, this is not the whole picture. If you look closely at the paintings you’ll notice that particular objects look like cutouts. Perhaps this series is actually a portrayal of the forgery surrounding the suburban landscape perpetrated by Hollywood and Madison Avenue. The illusion that suburban life is just like living in cottage country. But, Jenna contends that her artwork is not meant to be negative commentary. The artist had a "gratifying suburban upbringing, and didn't feel constrained or suffocated by it." She says that the "cut-outs are more of a nod to my fondness of trompe l'oeil painting techniques." The cutouts are present to break up the continuity and force the viewer to question what is real. 

What could be said about Jenna's artwork then is that it is a reflection of familiar settings or objects through a magical lens. Jenna’s most recent series, Working, depicts the environment and objects of the 9-5, office experience. This series of drawings, paintings and cutouts are similar in many respects to her last project but are even more surreal or abstract. 

I recently interviewed Jenna about her artwork and influences, as well as took some snaps while at her studio. Considering Jenna is also a curator of artwork I also asked her about the state of contemporary art a little.

LondonFuse: What are some of your influences?

Jenna Powell: Visually I can be moved by pretty much anything. To be more specific I have always been really inspired by Neil Gaiman’s novels and short stories – mainly his ability to make even the most mundane situations become magical and unfamiliar. I feel the same about Wes Anderson’s films and shorts. In terms of painters, Mamma Andersson’s use of color, mainly her uninhibited use of black paint, is pretty inspirational. And Neo Rauch’s storytelling ability.

Lately I have been engrossed in reading about the Dadaists of the 1950s and their use of humor and interest in non-art – but I have a hard time delineating why exactly I enjoy Dada so much because from what I know about Dadaism is that it is characterized by several elusive and sometimes contradictory attitudes. I once read that Dada artists all share one inherent quality: an “absurd spirit”. The Dadaists were all about a type of strategic nonsense, a structured irrationality that questioned and subverted cultural norms. I really like that.

I’m also going to go to Universal Studios in the near future, which I think will be pretty neat.

LondonFuse: Your work can come across as methodically executed. Do you have a process for conceiving new projects or do you conjure them up more organically?

JP: Borrowing from set design, model railroading, and various other not-so-neatly-labeled things, my method of creating is a wonderfully tangled procedure. The initial sketches, the miniature building, the photographing, are but processes, mere steps to the final process of painting - this final process (painting) tends to be just as lengthy. It is a cumbersome, time-consuming practice, which is probably why I enjoy it so much. The process itself is it’s own little world.

So, yes, absolutely, I do work systematically, but I don’t have any method in place for coming across a new idea – those ideas usually pop up when I’m half way through another project. Also, there are always gaps in my process that allow for spontaneity and accident. Usually the most exciting parts of my work come from where things fall through the cracks, or an idea that doesn’t go as according to plan – people refer to these happenings as “happy accidents”. The beauty of having such a ridiculous redundant process is that I never know what the final product is going to look like - I stopped trying to predict that a while ago, it makes things more interesting.

LondonFuse: A lot of your work occupies a very tangible but meta spectrum. With your Welcome to Chesterfield series you made miniatures of cottages, took pictures of them, which you then used to produce the final paintings. Regardless of all the different phases to the work, you were tangibly reflecting facets of the real world, albeit in a whimsical tone and impressionistic fashion. Do you think this type of abstraction in painting reflects trends in contemporary art?

JP: The buildings depicted in Chesterfield were mainly houses, but I can understand why you see a resemblance to cottages – Chesterfield houses were based off of the most commonly used post-WWII house-structures that were mainly different variations of bungalows. But to get back to the question, yes, the conversation of abstraction and (or versus) representation is a resilient topic in painting. This particular type of abstraction that you mentioned, this strategy of using a representational language then distorting the realism, is a useful tool in avoiding easy categorization. This type of painting comes naturally to me and was enforced through my education. And, yes I think this strategy, of keeping some representational ties, is one you can plainly locate in current painting trends; seen in works of such painting superstars as Peter Doig, Marlene Dumas, and Janet Werner.

LondonFuse: Your recent art project, Working, is an abstraction of the 9-5, cubicle office place. Is there a political or social innuendo behind this art? Are you attempting to say something about the structure behind the conventional workplace?

JP: Yes, absolutely, there is social commentary in my work, but probably not the commentary you would expect. As a self-proclaimed optimist I tend to look for the good in the bad, but also the extraordinary in the ordinary. The intention behind this project isn’t to ridicule office or administrative jobs (because I love my job) but to locate the beautiful and absurd in these everyday spaces. The goal of this project is to rediscover and represent wonder and humor, attitudes that can be utilized as an escape from the (real or imagined) constraints of the workplace.

I think the topic of escapism is a really interesting thing because it can be so easily associated with negative connotations, but escapism can be anything: sleep, prayer, food, sex, books, video games, exercise, shopping, etc. Escapism to me is engaging in fiction, not by removing myself from the present or by trying to somehow supersede it, but instead by appropriating and activating possibilities that lie hidden in our everyday. I think there is something about engaging in fiction that makes you more equipped with handling your own reality, in a more fantastical way.  I try to employ a playful aesthetic or represent an absurd narrative, as a kind of bad-feeling escape-valve. Laughter is the original emotional escape-valve.

Further inspiration for this project is based on where humor and the office intersect – think of team building exercises. This project was also influenced by trying to locate the ‘work’ in making ‘artwork’.

LondonFuse: What do you make of the advent of 3D printing technology? Are you interested in incorporating this technology into your work at any point?

JP: Yes, of course. For a bit I considered myself strictly a painter, I now realize how silly this was. It’s really hard to create interesting things when you put constraints on yourself like that. That might sound odd considering earlier in this interview I spoke a lot about the structured methods I used to create work, but I would never implement something in my practice that I find to be too rigid or too constricting. Recently, I have been working more in sculpture, drawing, and just general-thing-making, depending on what I am interested in creating. So, short answer, yes absolutely, 3D printing sounds like an expensive dream come true.

LondonFuse: Do you think the prevalence of social media in our lives (thanks to mobile devices and the Internet) is influencing contemporary artists to make populist or anti-populist artwork?

JP: It is important to me that my work has access points. Also, my favorite artists (David Shrigley, Wanda Koop, Neo Rauch) all create work that is accessible for one reason or another, no matter how connected the viewer is with contemporary trends or historical references. I’m not saying that artwork should be easy or unchallenging, but exclusivity doesn’t appeal too much to me.

Even the work of David Shrigley or Claes Oldenberg could be defined as populist, based on their comedic timing, their cartoonish aesthetic. I don’t by any means think all populist work is lowbrow. Marcel Duchamp’s selected poems that were published in the Anthology of Black Humor in 1940 is one text I constantly reread because the writing plays upon lowbrow topics with razor sharp wit. One Duchamp contribution: “Incest, or familial passion?”.

So I guess what I am getting at is that I haven’t noticed a huge influx of populist or non-populist artwork, but I am also not 100% sure I know exactly what non-populist work would look like. But I am a fan of work that addresses the everyday, and work that addresses the everyday must also cater slightly to the every-person.

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