Jenn Berger — whose pre-Trump animatronic portrait of Hillary Clinton as a child was the subject of the very first LESS ART interview — is unleashing a major new body of work with her Stranger Friends show at CMAY gallery in Los Angeles’ Miracle Mile district. Eschewing the signature technological mashups of L’il Hill and her other other drawing/video/robotic hybrids (see that olde interview for a brief survey, and check out her website ya dingus!), Berger has turned her mad reanimatory skills to the perennially moribund genre of figurative drawing.
Employing an aleatory dada/Situationist selection process for her subjects, and a labor-intensive (8 years in the making!) multi-tiered execution schedule, Berger’s Stranger Friends operates on a different level of hybridity: simultaneous conceptual rigor, meditative craft, and sensual exquisiteness (her minute renderings verge on the psychedelic) — while broaching the whole relational aesthetics/social sculpture can-o’-worms with a profoundly anti-authoritarian and humanistic agenda.
Jenn Berger’s Stranger Friends runs from October 2 through November 6 at CMay Gallery (5828 Wilshire Blvd, Los Angeles, CA 90036, 213 528-4501) Opening Reception: Saturday, October 2, 3pm – 6pm. Mask and social distancing protocols are undoubtedly in place. The gallery is otherwise open Wednesday – Saturday 12pm – 5pm for which you seem to need to make an appointment.
LESS ART: I think your taxidermied people are neat. Where do you get your ideas?
Jenn Berger: Cool, thank you! I was drawing strangers that I encountered by chance and I had the urge to bring the drawings more to life. I wanted the subjects to be more present in the room than they felt to me on the paper, so I had the thought to make them three-dimensional. I think the goal of taxidermy is to make an animal feel as real and alive as possible and I had a similar desire – to bring these drawings I was making to life.
LESS ART: What was the first piece you made in this series, and what were the circumstances surrounding it?
Jenn Berger: The first piece occurred when I was walking down the street in Irvine, where I was going to school and living at the time. I think this was in 2013. A man was walking towards me and the style of his clothing reminded me of someone that could be in New Orleans, where I had lived before. I asked him if I could take his photograph to later draw from and he obliged. It wasn’t planned – I just felt compelled to ask. I was starting to draw at the time and I had the impulse to draw him. I got his business card because I had told him I would send him the drawing. It turns out he hosted a jazz, blues, and gospel show at the university’s radio station, which seemed to confirm something I had sensed about him.
LESS ART: That’s interesting, the sense of a subcutaneous narrative. I think that comes through in the work. I assume they all have these unspoken backstories, and that they overlap to some degree. Is this an important part of the work?
Jenn Berger: I’m not sure how important the backstories are at this point. I’m happy to share them but I also like to hear someone’s reaction without having the backstory – viewers often think they know one of the strangers. Recently, someone thought that one of the 3-D versions (of a woman named Rose) was a character in a popular horror movie. On the other hand, I’ve always had in mind a book element to the project where I would send the drawings to each stranger and draft an imagined response. I’d like to see how my imaginary response lines up with their actual reaction. I’m curious what they would think of the drawings – what would it be like to see yourself with all that detail included? I wonder if they would even remember our encounter (since it has been several years since I took most of the photos) and if that would make seeing the drawing even odder. Would all of the strangers still be alive or reachable?
LESS ART: The PR mentions “post-apocalyptic scenarios in which characters of diverse backgrounds work together to form new societies” — can you expand on that a little? Any plans to pitch an animated series to Netflix?
Jenn Berger: I was thinking of post-apocalyptic stories like Octavia Butler’s The Parable of the Sower or Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. I could see those types of stories, where strangers must form bonds quickly in order to survive, as a way of framing this disparate group of characters in the show. I was also thinking of novels and movies where there is a seemingly random cast of characters and it’s eventually revealed what connects them. I like the idea that a viewer could make up their own story for why these specific people or characters are in the room together. No plans at the moment for an animated series, but I like the idea!
LESS ART: These drawings and sculptures (along with much of your previous work) have a powerful uncanny charge. Is this a quality you’re trying to evoke? Do you feel like Frankenstein, that you’re creating entities that have some sort of autonomous proto-sentience? Do you ever see them out of the corner of your eye and jump?
Jenn Berger: I think it’s just my natural sensibility with my work – making things that feel both strange and familiar at the same time. I’ve been living with the sculptures and drawings for a long time, so they don’t startle me so much by chance these days. With every portrait, the subject is looking pretty much directly at the camera. I didn’t ask anyone to, but it happened every time (and there are many more photos than I got a chance to draw). I wanted to create the sensation of all of these strangers looking at you. I’ve realized that you have to meet each stranger’s gaze too, though, in order for that feeling of being looked at to occur.
LESS ART: Can you explain the technical aspects of the work – what are you drawing with, on what surface, and how are you copying them onto the vinyl? Are there any quiltmaking type intricacies to the needlework?
Jenn Berger: I’m drawing with colored pencils on paper. Then I take a photograph of the drawing and have that printed on a vinyl/faux leather material. For the sculptures, I start with a printed “skin” and make the foam substructure subsequently. I begin by loosely pinning the drawing to the foam and then I move back and forth between the faux leather and foam as I get into more detailed areas. I shape the foam by looking at the drawings (and make the drawing from the photos) and I try to depict what I see in the drawings – sometimes a part of the face or body looks like it’s angled a certain direction and the next time I look up, I see it the opposite way. The same thing happens when I’m drawing – I see certain colors one moment and then other colors the next. I layer the different colors that I see. If something looks off in the drawing, then that may get emphasized in the sculpture. I try to adhere to the drawing, rather than trying to make the figures anatomically correct. I make cuts and folds in the material and use lots of pins – it’s all towards trying to make the “skin” fit as smoothly as possible over the lumps and folds of the foam. The pieces all have to fit together so as not to expose any of the foam underneath. I often fold over one of the adjoining pieces to keep the seams neat – this pieced-together quality may be like quiltmaking.
LESS ART: Do you plan to have an event where you distribute the promised drawings (or copies) to the subjects, or will it be done privately, one at a time? Have you set a timeline for that?
Jenn Berger: I’ve always envisioned it as a private, one at a time, email or letter exchange of drawing and correspondence. I collected every stranger’s contact info (either their address or email) and imagined sending the drawing or a copy and awaiting their response. I even got a PO Box and one point, which is funny, because each of the subjects trusted me with their contact information, so what that does that say about me? The timeline has gone way off the rails in that I started this project in 2013 and it’s eight years later and I haven’t gotten around to contacting one stranger yet, but I think about it often.
LESS ART: Will you continue to work on this series, or do you feel you’ve reached some sort of closure to the project with this show? Or a bit of both?
Jenn Berger: A bit of both. I definitely want to take a break from this project and explore other ideas and approaches. I do feel this is a good stopping point, for now. If I was starting this series now with what I know from having done it, I’d probably end up with a different group of strangers. So I can imagine different configurations of this project, and other offshoot projects, like the book or animations, that are related, but I do see it as one singular piece and I’m ready to set it aside for now.