Editor’s Note: The following was written and submitted by Philip Titlebaum – an intern with Blue Sky Project)
Glenna Jennings was born in Alpine, CA, where she navigated a landscape of monster trucks, chaparral and soccer moms that still informs much of her practice.
She holds BAs in Photography (Art Center College of Design), English-Journalism (Pepperdine University) and Spanish (Pepperdine University). She received her MFA in Visual Arts from the University of California San Diego in 2010. Before joining the faculty at The University of Dayton, Jennings served as the U.S. director of the Geneva-Los Angeles based art collective compactspace, where she curated dozens of shows with emerging and established artists and faculty from Southern California art programs, including CalArts, USC, UCSD, UCLA, Art Center College of Design and Otis.
Jennings work includes photography, writing, video and curating, and she has exhibited throughout the U.S., Europe and Mexico. Her work was recently included in the 2010 California Biennial and resides in multiple public and private collections, including the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego and the Winda Cultural Center in Kielce, Poland. Jennings joined the faculty of the University of Dayton’s Department of Visual Arts in 2011.
Serbian mothers, two-buck chuck and taco shop fare collide in Glenna Jennings’ ongoing series At Table, a collection of photographs that investigate and celebrate the everyday act of gathering to eat and drink. Since 2006, Jennings has been documenting her encounters with various social groups throughout the U.S., Europe and Mexico. She turns her lens on a world in which the formalities of the mundane manifest in the common act of food and beverage consumption, portraying the everyday as dramatic spectacle.
For the current installation of the project, Jennings has created a series of wallpapers inspired by Kitsch, popular culture and historical pattern-making. These photo-based designs house her imagery in its own micro-universe, evoking the underlying domesticity, humor and reverence inherent to the At Table experience.
At Table is currently on display at the Blue Sky Gallery located at 33 North Main Street, Dayton, Ohio. I recently had the opportunity to sit down with Glenna Jennings and find out a little bit more about her work and experiences.
Philip Titlebaum: How did you get involved with Blue Sky Project?
Glenna Jennings: This past Spring, I met Blue Sky co-creator Peter Benkendorf and he invited me to become part of the Blue Sky community as a collaborating artist. He and artistic director Rodney Veal were very receptive to my ideas and we were off and running! I was impressed by the scope of Blue Sky’s mission and the quality of work produced by its many resident artists over the years. The summer so far in Dayton has been a productive blast! I had the chance to meet and work alongside the amazing artist Katherine Mann and to meet so many like-minded members of the Dayton community. Blue Sky is unique to the other art organizations I have worked with on the West Coast in its generosity and community spirit. I look forward to seeing it grow!
PT: What inspired you to begin your At Table series?
GJ: First of all, I love to eat and drink, preferably while seated! However, much of the imagery is not solely about the act of consuming food or beverages. It is loaded with other cultural artifacts and gestures, from beauty products and party favors to Soviet Kitsch and orthodox iconography. The images are really about spaces of common ground and physical engagement. I switched from a film-based to a mainly digital practice in 2006 and the quality and quantity of my imagery changed a great deal. I had been shooting a lot of medium and large format work during my BFA days at Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, CA and (under the constraints of that institution) was very focused on results. The economy of the digital process loosened me up and allowed the images to flow. I became a better editor in that process, as the dramatic moments I cull from hundreds of shots of friends and family are fairly rare – I generally get about 5-12 ‘usable’ images per year. Therefore, what started as a side project to adapt my process has become a lifelong quest for dramatic everyday moments.
Of course, most folks don’t like to be photographed while shoving food in their mouths or indulging in cheap wine, so I had to “shoot” my subjects into submission. At that time, I had been doing some commercial work in Los Angeles and I was extremely turned off by the standard requests to make models skinnier and skin smoother. However, there is still a mode of objectification inherent in the At Table process. Most of my subjects are not thrilled with how they come out in the photos, but they are willing participants who later revel in the results (except for my mother – she still hates the photos of her!). It is perhaps cliché to position the photograph as a receptacle of personal memory, and equally over-academic to stake its legitimacy solely in cultural documentation. But these images are both, and I am not afraid to say I find their drama and chaos beautiful.
PT: What have you learned through your study of consumption?
GJ: In the 90s and early 2000s “consumption” was a catch phrase in the global art institution (if I can indeed claim one exists!). We had, among others, Andreas Gursky’s uber-photo of a 99-cent store and other spaces of consumer behavior. We also had Martin Parr’s amazing images in Think of England and other bodies of work. I gravitate toward Parr’s humor and humanism, the way he captured both the pride and humility of a nation stubbornly (and cheekily) morphing into the global economy. Of course, there are countless other influences and histories I have discovered throughout this ‘side-project.’ However, I began to see these photos more as celebrations than clinical documents of consumer behavior – so I use the term “consumption” in a more ‘tongue-in-cheek’ manner. Most of us readily acknowledge our consumer status, but “consumption,” with its plurality of definitions, is belittling and frightening. In these images it is the gestures and expressions that immediately draw my attention rather than the brand names that litter the foreground. We are the masters of the table; the goods are mere fodder.
On another note, several of the friends and family in the series are no longer with us, and their photos were deemed appropriate to be displayed at funerals and memorial ceremonies. Those events truly revealed the schism between consumption and celebration. That’s where the pathos entered. At my dear friend Fellini’s wake, I realized this personal archive could have greater significance outside the institution – it served its most important function of catharsis and remembrance while sitting on a short easel at West Hollywood’s Silver Spoon Café.
PT: What led to the decision to create wallpapers for this manifestation of the project?
GJ: The wallpapers were a delusional gift from the muses! Well, Let’s see…
Since moving to Dayton in August 2011, I have been doing research into the history of the National Cash Register, focusing on images of Patterson’s social welfare programs housed within the local NCR archive. I recently received a Peter McGrath Human Rights fellowship from the University of Dayton to more fully realize this project, which will result in a body of multi-media works that mesh archival imagery with current investigations of how we view labor and leisure from a Human Rights perspective. My studio walls are filled with Xerox copies of photos depicting various groups of laborers doing workplace calisthenics in factories and offices. I was drawn to the formal patterns in these images, to the way the bodies made sense of themselves through corporate-imposed repetition and mimicry. These faces and bodies had begun to form a wallpaper within my home, yet I would never meet, interview or know any of the subjects. That is an intense feeling for me and I am sure for many who do archival work!
The connection of that research to kitschy, celebrity-based patterns is tangential, but it was one of those exhilarating studio moments — one minute you are reading about the history of a local economy and the next you are Googling “famous people eating.” I had never made “internet art” and had a longing to do so. I basically turned a rudimentary assignment I had given in class into a personal exercise and enjoyed the results. In a conceptually simple but perceptually accurate sense, any duplicated and manipulated image can become a pattern, which is fun and eerie! Moreover, most people look pretty hilarious when they are eating, and the public loves to see celebrated figures made vulnerable.
I wanted a new context for my existing images, and at the risk of falling into gimmick, I churned out custom “appropriated” wallpapers. I am still looking into the economic and aesthetic history of wallpaper, but mostly I am having a lot of fun. Wallpaper was a good solution because it reinforced the domestic theme of the work and formally separated these charged images from the white cubes they inhabit. The representational aspect is not immediately apparent – you can’t see Betty White eating a hot dog or Mike Tyson shoving a green glob into his mouth until you get really close – and that’s what I want you to do!
PT: Where does the series go from here?
GJ: I’d love to wallpaper the entire state of Ohio! But in the meantime, I am turning my lens on less familiar groups of people. I have begun to document my new friends and visitors in Dayton, as well as the international students from UD’s Intensive English Program who have graciously invited me into their homes. As a newcomer, the At Table series offers me the opportunity to meet new people and continue my research into Dayton’s history. In an “immigrant friendly” city, I should expect to find a great deal of diversity in our everyday operations, but this is not always the case. As a Spanish speaker, I am hoping to forge a relationship with our Latino community and present imagery of diverse groups of Daytonians who don’t often meet around the table. I am available most any time if you have room for a voyeur/guest! This new work will debut at Blue Sky in November, just in time for the holiday season.
PT: What is the best way for people to get a hold of you if they would like to be a part of the project?
GJ: Just send an email to my UD account: [email protected] — and let me know what I should bring!
PT: Could you tell me about your upcoming photo project for Cityfolk?
GJ: The Cityfolk project came along as I was in the midst of researching the ethnographic nature of Dayton for a curatorial project with The Dayton International Peace Museum to open in 2013. Jean Berry invited me to take part in the Cityfolk initiative to bring large-scale photos to public spaces throughout Dayton. As part of my project, I will be running a photo-booth on Courthouse Square during Urban Nights to make portraits of all and any Daytonians who stop by. This event is also supported by the “Dayton, Ohio: You Are Here!” project, initiated by Terry Welker. The final product – large scale portraits – will debut on various city walls this coming winter. It is really exciting to work with yet another organization that supports art and diversity! Oh, and there will be wallpaper!
PT: What is your other work like?
GJ: I have an interesting personal relation to the arts – the first day of my BFA program (which would be my 3rd Bachelor’s) was 9/11/2001. I had left a career teaching English as a Second language to follow this art dream into a cultural, physical and economic explosion. There was a lot of fantasy and escapism in my early work, but it was full of passion and a lusty pursuit of the relevance of Kitsch to a society in the midst of a major representational wake-up call. I began to form lasting professional relationships with other artists, which mainly resulted in compactspace, a Geneve-LA based art collective and gallery that had a nice 6-year run in downtown Los Angeles. That experience fueled my curatorial work and inspires me to stretch myself as thin as possible – after all, there is no such thing as a “solo show” – I love working with other artists and seeing how disparate works create new narratives.
On my first day of Grad School at The University of California San Diego, my father passed away. This devastation was of a far more personal nature, and I had a hard time making new work. The only way through the grief was to create around, in, over and about his death. Inheritance, a collection of works that includes portraits of various women from my life eating and drinking around a table with my father’s prized pistol, was the result of this experience. (My dad left me, a leftie, 17 guns, most of which I still intend to sell to fund art.)
My work since then has been eclectic in terms of subject matter – a conflation of Doestoevsky’s Crime and Punishment with high school cheerleading, the aesthetics of Place and Space in a small Mexican-American border town, and now NCR. What unites these disparate topics is a passionate need to organize chaos while celebrating disorder. Those age-old binaries – Fact/Ficion, History/Memory, Life/Death – they’re all in there! It is probably not surprising that Ira Glass is a personal hero of mine.
PT: Anything else?
GJ: Why, yes! I am currently creating a course titled “Photography as Social Practice.” We will look at the legacy of photo-journalism from a traditional academic standpoint, but we will also collaborate with other community-based groups, including Blue Sky, Cityfolk, The Rivers Institute and The Center for the Environment and Sustainability to locate and/or create projects of Art Activism within our community. I aim to get students of multiple disciplines involved in this initiative. We will get out there and pixilate the Dayton map with possibilities. This is an opportunity for the UD students to get beyond the distant rhetoric they observed this past fall with Occupy Dayton. Basically, I aim to keep that dream alive through an ‘insurgency’ of hope, help and community empowerment.
Blue Sky Project is a summer experience that empowers professional artists from around the world and local youth to collaborate and build community through the creation of ambitious works of contemporary art and performance. Blue Sky also maintains a gallery at 33 North Main Street, Dayton, Ohio where Jennings work is on display through July 27.