Jennifer Moon lives and works in Los Angeles, California. I met Jennifer through curator, writer, and all-around-genius Noëllie Roussel, and grew more and more intrigued with Jennifer’s life and art via Facebook. When I realized I would have a bit of free time during a trip back to California, I had the pleasure of spending an afternoon in conversation with Jennifer at her home in Culver City. Jennifer is currently working on the second part of Phoenix Rising, a three-part mediation on love, revolution, and personal change.
The project is both an act of self-examination and disclosure, as well as a manifestation of The Revolution, a self-authored philosophy for transformation and expansion authored by Jennifer herself. Phoenix Rising Part 1: This is Where I Learned of Love reflects on Jennifer’s time at the Valley State Prison for Women through photographs of objects obtained by the artist during her incarceration (prison relics), an accompanying book documenting her time, and a sculptural installation of the letters exchanged by Jennifer and romantic partners both in and out of prison. This is Where I Learned of Love is the first body of work of Jennifer’s I became familiar with, and is exemplary of two things about her practice that I find extremely compelling.
First, Jennifer’s recent work usually involves self-disclosure. Jennifer’s art is, to a certain extent, indistinguishable from her life; drawing a strict boundary between the two is not possible (or, to Jennifer, I think, desirable), and Jennifer places so much of her life open for the viewer. There is vulnerability and self-exposure in Jennifer’s work, a self-exposure that is unique for its rigor and courage. Although much contemporary art and literature purports to be confessional, how much about the artist or writer do we really get to see? And how much of that is motivated not be genuine vulnerability or trust in the viewer, but by a need for attention, approval, or acclaim? In contrast, Jennifer demonstrates her commitment to authentic self-disclosure by exposing not just those parts of herself that would otherwise be acceptable or fit into certain confessional genres. There are, after all, ways of being vulnerable in public that are culturally acceptable, in which case, what does this vulnerability actually cost? One might be willing to discuss personal growth, or relationships (and their failure), but, say, your time spent in prison? Jennifer’s willingness to “go there” gives her the freedom to the reveal the connections between all the parts of her life, and inspires courage in the viewer.
Second, Jennifer’s work asks the viewer if they have the courage to believe. When we met, one question I asked, with some embarrassment, was, “Do you really believe this – do you really believe in The Revolution?” (She does!) I found this question embarrassing because I knew it revealed more about myself than about Jennifer. Why is it that I felt the question needed to be asked? First, I think it has something to do with the way art is made, exhibited, and analyzed at present. We are trained to look at work critically, and critically in this context usually means skeptically. We do not take what artists assert at face value, and all the more so when those assertions are, like Jennifer’s, expansive. Second, this critical stance toward art is connected to, for some of us (I suppose I should just as well write, “for me”), a critical, skeptical posture towards belief structures in general.
As Jennifer puts it more eloquently below, she is not asking viewers to believe in The Revolution. Nor is she espousing it as a global system that will work for everyone. What she is doing – and what the work models – is challenging the viewer to operate from a position of belief, and not belief in Jennifer or her beliefs, but in themselves. It is this challenge that makes Jennifer’s work so compelling, and unique among the artists living and working today.
Q. Tell me a bit about your studio. How long have you been there, and how did you find it?
A. My studio is in my garage at my house in Culver City (though I’m rarely in there; most of the work I do takes place on my laptop in my office but I have ambitions of someday making stuff in my studio). It’s very organized in my studio; it’s like a set for a studio.
I’ve been here at this house for almost 3 1/2 years. My parents own the property, which is a duplex. I live in the back house and they rent out the front house. My parents basically bought this house for me, mainly out of fear that I will not have a place to live after they die and in hopes that I will someday become an adult with a regular income and take over the mortgage. I am absolutely fortunate when it comes to my living/work situation, actually with a lot of things, all of which I am exceedingly grateful for; it has enabled me to focus on The Revolution! Thanks, Mom and Dad!
Q. What does a typical day making work look like for you? Do you have any habits, rituals, or practices that help you work?
A. I totally have habits, rituals, practices (though I’m not sure if they help or hinder my work, probably both). For the most part I do the same routine nearly every day. Unless I have scheduled appointments, my workday looks like the following:
1. Wake up: 5am is my most favorite time to start the day though that rarely happens; anytime between 6-8am is more usual.
2. Log into my laptop and put on some music.
3. Grab my office wastebasket, squat on the floor, and run my fingers through my hair to grab loose hairs and dispose of them in the wastebasket. Pick up fallen hairs off the floor and dispose of those. Lightly blow on the floor around me to reveal camouflaged hairs and dispose of those.
4. Carry Mr. Snuggles off the bed, clean his eye boogers, and place him in his bed on the floor while admiring him.
5. Half make my bed, focusing on removing loose hairs. Note: I used to fully make my bed every morning, straightening and smoothing the sheets, evenly distributing the pillows and pulling the comforter over, but one day I made the mistake of looking underneath the covers and discovering a collection of leg hairs. That started an annoying ritual of harvesting leg hairs underneath the covers before making my bed, which took like half an hour. So now I half make my bed and resist looking under the covers.
6. Scan new emails, sort, and flag.
7. If dishes have not been washed the night before, wash dishes while contemplating work for the day.
8. Make coffee or tea and feed Mr. Snuggles.
9. Respond to flagged emails and do KCHUNG stuff while drinking two cups of coffee/tea.
10. Shit. Sometimes shit again.
11. After an hour or two, start feeling hungry and make breakfast food and continue to work while eating.
12. After emailing/KCHUNG stuff, start on my work, which generally involves some degree of writing. Eat easy to prepare food when I start to feel hungry and continue to work while eating. Note: Sometimes emailing and KCHUNG stuff are the only things I do for the whole day. Once I hit the five hour mark of emailing/KCHUNG, I start to feel like I’m gonna die. According to articles written about the habits of productive people, I spend too much time emailing.
13. Around 2-3pm, start feeling really gross and greasy and realize that I need to brush my teeth and shower or wash up (shower days are M,W,F), so I do that, which is another routine in itself.
14. Take Mr. Snuggles on a walk. Note: Thank continuous expansion for Mr. Snuggles because without him I would not take walks and taking a walk has become an invaluable part of my routine.
15. Sometimes shit.
16. Feed Mr. Snuggles and eat dinner while relaxing in front of the TV or working.
17. Depending on my energy level, I will either continue to work, do light housework, or watch TV.
18. On Tuesdays and Thursdays, I ride in the evenings. On Wednesday evenings, I attend a meeting.
19. Floss/brush teeth and wash face.
20. Sleep: 10pm is my ideal time to go to bed (anytime between 10 pm-12 am is usual). I like to sleep 8 hours but I’ll take 7.
Thanks for asking me this question because it made me realize that I’m kind of a hair freak with poor hygiene and inefficient work habits. I knew I have control issues and practice poor hygiene but wasn’t fully cognizant of my questionable work habits because I always seem busy. I think I use emailing and KCHUNG to procrastinate. Oh and I forgot to mention that Facebook is always open so I use that to distract myself too. Oh and sometimes when I finish a project, it takes me a while to get going on the next project (especially if that next project is solely writing). Once, I spent three days watching Charmed. Oh and one more thing, I’d like to add working out to my regimen. Thanks for bringing this to the forefront of my attention, Grant! UPDATE!: I just started a Hip Hop dance class on Monday evenings!
Q. Much of your early work involved the assumption of various characters or personalities, together with the creation of backstories and a narrative structure in which the personalities/characters lived. More recent works are drawn more directly from your own life. What prompted this shift?
A. When I was assuming characters and playing dress up with my early work of Deedra Inc. and The Startouchers, I realized that all these personae were magnifications or caricatures of different aspects of myself. For example, Deedra Swan portrayed the part of me who believed in world salvation through corporate ventures (which I still believe to be a useful tool for dismantling capitalism, as described in Faction 3 of The Revolution); and through Electra I got to play out my fantasies of being a superhero (though tragically so). And of course the character of Jennifer was an exaggeration of me at the time in the early 90’s, smoking a lot of weed, antisocial, and wishing to dispose of my body and existing on an astral plane. The Startouchers were definitely the most removed from me and my life and it marked the end of dress up. With The Startouchers, I went to my extreme of fantasy play and through that I realized I’m more interested in the exploration of self. I decided to drop the safety of facades.
The Jennifer Moon Plan in 1995 was the start of making work drawn directly from my everyday life. It was devoid of any fantasy and severely real in its references. At the time I was experiencing difficulty motivating myself to work or do anything, so I enrolled twelve people to help me adhere to a one month schedule that I laid out in The Jennifer Moon Day to Day Planner. In exchange for their participation, subscribers received a one year subscription to a magazine of their choice that I received through Publisher’s Clearing House and American Family Publishers. It’s maybe too complicated to explain the details of the project so I’ll just attach an image of the Official Rules as well as an image of The Weekly Organizer for The Jennifer Moon Plan, which was given to each subscriber. The Jennifer Moon Plan also marked the start of making work with the intention of bettering myself and my ongoing negotiation with the social realm.
I still love fantasy and impossible things and since then my work typically blends fantasy, the fanciful or fantastical with stark, often banal reality and it’s always autobiographical.
Q. The texts you have written for The Revolution reference thinkers like Foucault and Hardt, but also TED talks and life coaches. Are you always looking for ideas to incorporate into The Revolution, or is it more that you incorporate them as you come across things that are helpful to you personally?
A. It’s definitely more the latter. When I come across something that I strongly relate to or that has been helpful or true for me in my quest for continuous expansion, I will reference it. Friends and people I meet in my everyday life are my greatest resource. I believe things present themselves to me when I am ready for it. It is something that I have come to trust and have faith in, which is my connection to the 3CE (Third Communal Entity). My job is simply to remain present, hyper-aware, open, willing, and connected.
Q. How do you want viewers to understand the relationship between distinct works (for example, a single Prison Relic photograph) and The Revolution? Do they need to be aware of and/or understand The Revolution to appreciate the individual pieces?
A. I hope my work has multiple access points that are equally satisfying to the viewer based on what s/he is seeking or wanting to see and experience at the moment. In Charley Ray’s Senior Studio class at UCLA, I gave this slide presentation of my work from 1993 to 1995, which I later added onto and restaged as a Pasadena public access show (Jennifer Moon Works 1993-1996). After the presentation, Pentti Monkkonen made a comment that has followed me since. He said that my work was like an organism. Another student then remarked how there are different tiers of access into my work, like a pyramid: for example, one could enjoy the superhero photographs as they are (remain at the tip of the pyramid) or go deeper into the lower levels of the pyramid and figure out there’s a whole complex narrative and structure that connects all the work and then perhaps go even deeper to make larger political and social connections. Charley liked Pentti’s comment but scolded this other student for stating something he thought was obvious but her seemingly obvious observation had a profound impact on me. I think about her comment often when making work and I also think about Pentti’s comment often. I approach my work as if I’m building an entire world or a multiplex universe and in the creation of a believable world or a living organism, everything is important, even the smallest of details. This allows for pleasure or appreciation of the work at varying degrees and levels. So to answer your question, no, the viewer does not need to understand The Revolution in order to appreciate the Prison Relic photographs. Some people just like a nice photograph (thank you, Patrick Connor!) or a good prison story and that’s just fine with me.
Q. Your current project, the Phoenix Rising Saga, is a three part series with an ambitious array of works and associated texts. How did you conceptualize its complex, multipart structure? Has its structure or components evolved over time?
A. The Phoenix Rising Saga was born from an obsessive crush I had on a girl; it was probably one of my most severe obsessions apart from my insane, three-year obsession on Charley Ray (speaking of Charley in my answer above). Anyways, I devised the project in a desperate attempt to get this girl alone in my house for a photo shoot where I fantasized we would then make out and have sex. It almost worked, I mean, I almost got her to do the photo shoot (the making out/sex part was never gonna happen; though I didn’t know that then). Spurred by intense desire and longing, I wrote a convincing enough proposal that she agreed to do the photo shoot (you can read the proposal in this Facebook Note); but then backed out four days before the shoot because she found out my master plan (which you can also read about in another Facebook Note).
So I didn’t get the girl but I got a super, multipart art project that I love. The components and structure have definitely evolved over time. For one thing, it expanded from a single show to a three-part series. Some pieces that are listed in the original proposal have been scratched or expanded upon to evolve into different pieces. The Phoenix Rising Saga is largely about love and as my ideas and experiences of love changed, so did the work. I am eternally grateful for this one girl because she propelled me to make art again, for real.
This whole process reminds me of this one episode of Charmed where Paige helps a group of leprechauns for personal gain reasons. At the end of the episode, Paige admits her selfish intentions and one of the leprechauns responds with these very wise words: “Doesn’t matter what brings a person; only what they leave with.”
Q. The second part of Phoenix Rising will be shown at the Hammer Museum for Made in L.A. 2014. When we discussed your plans for some of the work, I was struck by the degree to which you walk the line between self-disclosure and openness regarding your personal life, but also a sense of reserve, either by obscuring the identities of certain individuals or by creating a narrative structure to contain the work. Is that something you aim for? In other words, how much of yourself are you willing to “give away” in the work?
A. I am willing to give away everything, all of myself. The times I hesitate or show reserve, as you say, is when other people are involved. In the past, I have upset friends when I’ve revealed something personal about myself in my work that also inadvertently revealed something personal about them. My intention with my work is not to publicize other people’s personal stuff or call them out or embarrass or humiliate them (which doesn’t mean that hasn’t happened). So this is something I think about often. My work is autobiographical and takes from my personal life experiences, which means that it also involves other people since that’s how life is. I am constantly negotiating how to talk about my vulnerability without involving too much of another person. This is especially the case for my radio show, Adventures Within.
I have committed myself wholly to the 3CE but that doesn’t mean other people have. I strive for continuous expansion, which means that someday it will be necessary for me to expand outside of myself, my body and my psyche, to combine with others and the 3CE to create a new form of consciousness and being beyond our current imagination. In order to achieve this, I must be willing to reveal and share ALL of myself, to give all of myself without fear. In a sense I am aiming for a certain kind of death, a death of self.
Q. We spoke a bit about the role of belief in your work. I think that your work asks viewers to believe in your project – to recognize your own belief in The Revolution and, implicitly to believe in it themselves. That’s different than the usual viewer’s mode of criticality or reserve. How would your ideal viewer approach your work? And how mindful of you of potential gaps between that ideal viewer and the “typical” viewer?
A. Hmm, I guess I’m not all that mindful of potential gaps between an “ideal” viewer and a “typical” viewer because I’m not sure what a typical viewer is, or my ideal viewer is the typical viewer. I hope that my work deals with very human things that all people can relate to so distinctions like typical and ideal seem unnecessary and almost unexpansive. I am very mindful of the viewer though.
Belief is absolutely a large part of my work, almost a prerequisite to unlock the magical components of the work. Though, I’m not so concerned that viewers believe in my beliefs; I’d much rather have them believe in themselves. Speaking of ideal, I guess my ideal situation is for my work to inspire the viewer to embrace their own vulnerability, adventure within their own dreams and fears, acknowledge their own feelings, question their own beliefs, become critical of themselves in a kind and loving way, and then start their own revolution. My primary focus is getting myself to believe. If I believe, others will too. This I am certain. The greatest joy I’ve experienced is when someone tells me of a project they started that was partly inspired by my work. Now that’s belief.
Q. Lately I’ve realized that a lot of artists whose work I find compelling took extended breaks from making work (voluntarily, involuntarily, or by accident). You also had a period where you didn’t make work. Did that change the way you approached making work or your idea of what it means to be an artist?
A. Fuck yes! Oh my god, like a lot. I feel like I’m finally living and interacting with life in the way I always talked about back in the day but was never able to achieve no matter how hard I dreamed, fantasized, visualized, and hoped. Perhaps it’s safe to say that I’m finally walking the walk instead of talking the talk, as that saying goes. I remember during one of my crits at Art Center, someone, I believe it was Mason Cooley, remarked that my work is largely about failure. I love that statement because it was very true on many levels. And I’ve learned that failure is one of the most expansive forces in existence: it stimulates change and a deeper level of self-awareness and compassion.
Something truly transformational happened during my extended break from art and life. I was given a gift to acknowledge and explore my dark side to its fullest so that it could loosen its grip on me and fall away. Today, my darkness no longer needs to dictate my perception and behavior because I’ve honored it, I’ve loved it for what it is, and I’ve learned what it needed to teach me, which is an empathic understanding that I could never get from my lightness. Now, this is not to say I no longer experience darkness; it’s just harder for it to determine how I interact with myself and the world without my awareness and consent. I’m also not advocating for anyone to be a junkie and go to prison. That’s just something I was fortunate to experience and live through (not everyone lives through that).
After going through nearly a decade of darkness and then getting sober, it took me another few years to start making work again. I found myself wanting to make art but not being able to take any significant action towards it. I realized that I had a lot of fear around making art and I had to identify and explore those fears so that they could also loosen their grip on me and fall away. And again, it’s not that I eliminated those fears, those same fears come back now and then but with less strength because I can easily identify when I’m in fear and what that fear is, where it comes from, and how to work with it. If you can’t already tell, I am a huge proponent for hailing one’s darkness because it has led me to the most expansion, joy, and freedom.
The main difference between me today and me back then is that I can say I love myself and mean it. It’s this love of self that has granted me immense amounts of courage, the courage to build a life based on impossible things.
Q. What makes a good studio visit? Is there anyone you have by on a regular basis to discuss your work? Or any particularly important conversation partners who have informed your practice?
The only person I talk to on a regular basis about my work is Young Chung; and sometimes it’s more like running to him in despair. He’s really good at reassuring and putting things in perspective and he also excels at not being shy with his opinion, which I like a lot.
I just started having studio visits so it’s kind of a new thing for me. I’ve probably had less than ten in my life outside of school. From those handful of visits, the ones that stick out for me are with Michael Ned Holte, Emily Gonzalez, and Jean Milant and Salomeh Grace. These stick out because they were super engaging and fun; we talked about other things besides my work and I left feeling energized and inspired. I also like studio visits that are no nonsense and only about the work: they come in, I show, they leave. I certainly appreciate those too.
In terms of important conversation partners who have informed my practice, I would have to say Michael Blomsterberg. I reference him the most in my work. He’s not an artist and we don’t talk about art. He’s a life coach and we talk about life, which I guess makes a lot of sense as to why he is so integral to my current practice.
Jennifer Moon lives and works in Los Angeles and is a graduate of UCLA (BA) and Art Center College of Design, Pasadena (MFA). She has had solo exhibitions at, amongst others: Transmission Gallery, Glasgow; Commonwealth and Council, Los Angeles; China Art Objects, Los Angeles; and Richard Heller Gallery, Los Angeles. Her work has also been featured in exhibitions at, amongst others: Cirrus Gallery, Los Angeles; the Glendale College Art Gallery; the Gwangju Biennale; Marc Foxx, Los Angeles; Kiki Gallery, San Francisco; and American Fine Arts Co., New York.