OtherPeoplesPixels Interviews Jenn Smith

Untitled (Flashlight), 2017. Acrylic and oil on panel. 22" x 20"

JENN SMITH's paintings and drawings feature Adam and Eve, a very chill Jesus Christ and a silly serpentagainst a rural Midwest background. Corntractors and signs of worship also populate her oeuvre. Her style is simple, evocative of a child's Sunday school drawings. But her exploration of evangelical belief and her own upbringing as an evangelical Christian is anything but simplistic. Humor and sincerity are both present, proving that you can take something seriously without believing in it. Jenn earned her BS in Studio Art at Illinois State University and her MFA in Painting from The School of the Art Institute of Chicago. She has exhibited at Carrie Secrist Gallery (Chicago), the Back Room at Kim’s Corner Food (Chicago) and Julius Caesar (Chicago). Her work was most recently on view in Winter Romance at Andrew Rafacz Gallery (Chicago). Jenn lives and works in Chicago.

OtherPeoplesPixels: What’s your relationship to Christianity?

Jenn Smith: I was raised evangelical Christian in the rural midwest. We attended the kind of church where people would spontaneously begin speaking in tongues or fall down in a trance-like state. They call it being “slain in the spirit.” We thought we were living in the end times and the Rapture would happen at any moment, so there was a lot of excitement and fear. I’m no longer a believer, but many of the ideas and images from that time in my life continue to fascinate me.

Book of Acts, 2017. Acrylic and oil on panel. 20" x 26"

OPP: Your painting style is silly, cartoonish, and evocative of a child’s drawings. Have you always painted this way? Or is it a style that is particularly suited to the content of your recent work?

JS: I learned how to draw and paint representationally as an undergraduate, but pretty soon after that I started making abstract paintings, drawings, and collages. I continued to make abstract works off and on for about ten years. Then, in grad school, I decided I needed to paint figuratively. It was a big jump. I was pretty sure I’d forgotten everything I learned as an undergrad, but I knew it was the only way I could wrestle with more personal content in my work. So, I started to paint figures, animals, cars, cornfields, angels and snakes from my imagination, very simplified and without too much fuss. I’m not very interested in realistic representations of things. I like diagrams, game boards and flat, matte shapes and symbols. I look at a lot of medieval paintings. I like how they’re so often flat with a confusing sense of space. A too-short arm, an awkward gesture, or foreshortening gone wrong keeps things interesting. 

OPP: More than just being visually interesting, it seems to suggest that the reality you think you know is a lie. . . which brings me to the recent snake drawings, like Soon and Very Soon (Snakes #16) and Soon and Very Soon (Snakes #3). How do your goofy snakes relate to Eden’s snake?

Soon and Very Soon (Snakes #7), 2017. Colored pencil on paper. 11" x 8.5"

JS: I found the inspiration for the snakes in a deck of Bible character memorization cards a friend gave me as a gift. The cartoon serpent was depicted on the Adam and Eve card, slithering in and out of oval-shaped holes in a flat green cartoon tree. The cards were meant to be straightforward educational materials, but I felt there was some level of (unintentional?) sexual innuendo. . . I mean, snakes going in and out of holes and so on. . . It was kind of funny, but it also hit on my interest in the complexities of what is hidden and what is visible in a painting or drawing. My snake drawing series has allowed me to explore these ideas within a very limited framework, in almost a diagrammatic way, using a set of symbols including snakes, boxes, holes, lines, dotted lines. 

OPP: And what about your version of Jesus? Does he have a different backstory than what the bible taught?

JS: Well, he retains his biblical backstory—there’s no way to separate him from that, even if I wanted to. But it’s interesting to put him in other contexts to see what happens. There’s so much emphasis in evangelical culture that we should strive for a personal, intimate relationship with Jesus. So for believers, they don’t think about him as a historical figure or a far-away savior; they think of him as their best friend who they talk to every day. So I feel like I got know him pretty well when I was growing up. When I first started to include a Jesus-looking figure in the work I wasn’t exactly sure why I was doing it. But now I’m starting to wonder if the Jesus in the paintings is actually a version of me, in the same way the Jesus a Christian talks to every day is actually just a part of their own mind. 

Untitled (figure and Jesus), 2016. Oil on canvas. 22" x 20"

OPP: What does the word irreverent mean to you and do you consider your work to be irreverent?

JS: I think irreverence and a sense of humor have served me well in my life, but I’m still getting used to the fact that they’ve made their way into my work. As I said, I was making abstract paintings, which were pretty safe (also sort of boring) before grad school. I know that people find my recent work irreverent, and I think it probably is. But I also try to make it complex and layered and to allow a lot of space for the unknown.

OPP: Tell us about the Demons. They are the most abstract works. I interpret the titles as referring to dates, so I imagine that these works represent some kind of event or “dangerous influence.

JS: That’s a good guess! I usually don’t say much about the demon paintings because I think part of what makes them interesting is their ambiguity.

Demon '87, 2016. Acrylic and oil on canvas. 22" x 20"

OPP: You’ve been out of grad school for a little over a year. I remember my own first year out as particularly difficult. How’s it been? Has anything changed in your practice?

JS: It has been a real rollercoaster, but I feel very lucky that I’ve been able to continue making my work and have had opportunities to show it. I draw a lot more now, as a way to develop ideas and plan paintings, but also as an end in itself. I have intensified my practice of collecting Christian ephemera, which I share on Instagram. Painting is still the center of my practice and I don’t think that will change. I’m still excited about it every day.

OPP: What are you excited about in the studio right now?

JS: I’m working on a series of paintings on the front sides of wooden boxes about the size and shape of cereal boxes. They are hollow inside and have coin slots on top. They resemble the collection boxes we used to have on the walls of our church. I’m interested in the idea of having these paintings/boxes on a gallery wall where anyone can drop a coin or a folded-up note or anything else into the slot, and whatever is dropped inside becomes a permanent part of the piece forever. 

To see more of Jenn's work, please visit thejennsmith.com.

Featured Artist Interviews are conducted by Chicago-based artist Stacia Yeapanis. When she’s not writing for OPP, Stacia explores the relationship between repetition, desire and impermanence in cross-stitch embroideries, remix video, collage and impermanent installations. She is an Adjunct Assistant Professor in the Department of Fiber and Material Studies at The School of the Art Institute of Chicago, where received her MFA in 2006 Stacia was a 2011-2012 Artist-in-Residence at BOLT in Chicago. Her solo exhibitions include shows at Siena Heights University (Michigan 2013), Heaven Gallery (Chicago 2014), the Annex Gallery at Lillstreet Art Center (Chicago 2014), The Stolbun Collection (Chicago 2017) and Indianapolis Art Center (Indiana 2017). In March 2018, her solo installation Where Do We Go From Here? will open at Robert F. DeCaprio Art Gallery (Palos Hills, Illinois). In conjunction, the atrium will exhibit two-dimensional artwork by artists who were invited by Stacia to make new work also titled  Where Do We Go From Here?