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I first experienced Jennifer Vanderpool’s hypersensitive reality close to a decade ago, having walked into one of her elaborate installations at the former Bandini Gallery in Culver City. It was one of the most obsessive, engaging installations I had come across, and it remains as such in my memory today.
Jennifer is someone who understands the charm of visual narratives, her works unfolding with an imaginary appreciation, and this room-sized setting was one of her most intricate stagings. Called, 'Hysterical Paradise', the title summed up well this over-the-top, technicolor landscape of flora, fun, fervor and fanaticism (with the countless hours spanned to spin, tie, mold, paint, and glitter the eruption of pieces, immediately evident). The work was both appealing and slightly unsettling (like eating too much cotton candy at the fair); hugging that fine line between extremes that Jennifer does so well.
Jennifer works across mediums—performance, photography, video, projections, installation, collage—and often combines many concepts and designs into one in-depth work. Her creative vision probes the intellectual concerns of the day (consumption and its modern disorders: eating, hoarding, the societal discrepancies arising from the global economy; the concerns of self and the role of contemporary feminism). But while unabashed of delving into the immediacy of the visual (colour, texture, form), Jennifer is also an artist who does not take the aesthetic at face value, frequently implanting herself within a work, whether physically via a performance or within the story, itself.
The mementos of Jennifer’s life further act as signifiers for larger historical and social narratives. Keepsakes such as her grandmother’s jewelry, buttons, and baking moulds, to throwaways like Starbucks coffee cups and Dollar Store trinkets, to advertising and vintage dress patterns retrieved from Soviet area Europe; are all repurposed into sculptures, collages, videoscapes, and patterned backdrops of reimagined prints.
Watching Jennifer’s oeuvre expand over the years, I have noticed a gradual calming. It is almost as if a fascination for the adornment of ‘things’ has been replaced in favour for a layering of content. To walk into the sensory overload of Jennifer’s earlier installations was to feel a compulsion to touch, pull the many bits and pieces apart then put them back together again, much like a puzzle. Her more recent works still embrace a love of collage and video but the effect has changed, the images flattened out, becoming more self-contained and controlled. That’s not to say that Jennifer has tidied-up her act to emulate a minimalist vision but it does suggest a shift has occurred in intent: where once the vision seemed to overpower the artist, now Jennifer is master over the work.
Of course, as its creator, Jennifer’s work is an extension of herself and the intimacy of her pieces often expose a strong psycho-socio undertone. In one of her earliest documented video pieces, Jennifer sits in front of a table of rainbow coloured confections and throughout the duration of the performance wordlessly eats each one of the candies until the table is empty. What begins as an eye catching palette with a pleasant tinge of nostalgia (who doesn’t remember a childhood with some fondness for a particular sweet) turns into a grueling act of self-punishment.
In a parallel work Jennifer devours a pyramid of pastries contained within stacks of pink boxes. As the display disappears, Jennifer visibly retches, the look on her face taking on an out-of-it confusion. It is moments such as this--excessive, overindulgent--that the work appears to consume the artist and its interpretation is left up to the viewer: an attractive woman, gorging herself on sweets, draws immediate associations with a compendium of eating disorders (what contemporary woman of today does not have some knowledge of these diseases) while the pastel allusion of the sweets elicits memories of every little girls’ fantasy playroom, the pink taffeta wish fulfillment of 'Pretty in Pink'. This is Jennifer at her best, toying with extremes, exposing the contradictions of our contemporary culture, and removing the rose-tinted glasses to reveal what lies beneath.
Jennifer acknowledges artist Ann Hamilton as a key influence, having viewed her momentous installations at the Mattress Factory in Pittsburgh at an impressionable age. (The melting of wax and figurine birds but two elements enjoyed by both). Other feminist artists such as Adrian Piper (known for her inseparability of art from philosophy and scholarship); and Martha Rosler are also cited by Jennifer as significant to her own practice. (Rosler’s 1975 performance the 'Semiotics of the Kitchen' foreshadows the continued fascination with the modern ‘domesticated’ woman in equal terms exalted and disclaimed in our society’s obsessive Food Network culture). In turn, Jennifer’s own unique approach to performance combines a Dadaist sense of humour (often employing theatrics to the point of the absurd) with an appreciation for audience. As Jennifer explains, a good artist takes into account her surroundings and the embracing of community by many feminist works of the 70s is something that Jennifer herself embraces in her own endeavours, today.
In recent years, Jennifer has exhibited in locales as far afield as the Ukraine, Russia, and Colombia and an understanding for audience often takes into account cultural differences and historical nuances, as well. Jennifer approaches these site-specific creations with the charm and humility that imbues her work in general, making the works both relevant and approachable by the general public. A 2013 performance, ‘Flores para el Trueque’, in Bogota saw Jennifer exchanging flowers (11,000 pieces constructed from detritus and items purchased from a local market) as a street vendor wandering the cobbled streets at the Sunday market. Patrons traded items for the flowers that amassed into a collection of trinkets, small coins, talisman, and religious icons, that Jennifer later displayed at the gallery.
The performance is all the more germane set against the historical backdrop ofBogota’s thriving flower trade. A trade that flourishes worldwide under the disproportionate imbalance of low wages paid to the country’s largely unskilled working-class poor (the displaced of the last century’s drug and political wars). For Jennifer, good performance work inserts the artist into the ménage and takes into account not only surrounding but instills a sense of community with the larger audience.
Which takes us up to date (in shorthand : ) to Jennifer’s evolving work now; that much like her multi-disciplinary approach typically includes several projects on the go, as well as teaching. As part of a 2015 aptly named 'Hothouse' (sic) residency at UCLA , Jennifer created 'The Trial of Isabella', described in announcements as an “operatic contemporary theater work fus[ing] high drama, costuming, and unique video imagery” into a raw narrative that probed the relation of the female body as a site for the struggle for power. Working in conjunction with set designer Paige Bossier, the mixed media/performance was re-enacted as part of the Museum of Contemporary Art, Santa Barbara’s On Edge Festival. As is Jennifer’s signature, the site of a personal observation grew to address a larger societal ailment, in this case the prevailing hush-hush approach towards sexual assaults and domestic violence. Stories of such violence are so commonplace nowadays that a systemized do-nothing policy routinely greets their telling. One need only pick up the paper or listen to the news to hear again and again of another such occurrence but in the vein of 70s feminism, giving voice to what is not heard is part of the reclaiming of power. Here Jennifer literally tells the story of Isabella and her attack by an acquaintance, placing herself in the collage of a montaged videospace.
Like Jennifer’s other work the visuals are pleasing yet pushing up against the unsettling story simmering underneath, the audience looks on, compelled to watch further despite a rising discomfort. Still, I can’t help but reflect back on Jennifer’s dizzying installations of years' before and notice once again that the artist is in complete control of her work—she has taken back her power.
To see what Jennifer’s up to next please visit her website at:www.jennifervanderpool.com.