Minna Jain’s art feels like the cipher you’d use to crack open the meaning of the shadow side of life. Her work creates a mystic, bleak aura that never quite reaches melancholy. The viewer is agitated into engaging with disconcerting sights rather than walking by them. “We need a tonic of wildness,” said writer Henry David Thoreau, and Jain’s multimedia art, including alternative photographic process printmaking and wearable sculpture, are that feral serum to savor.
Jain, one of the five co-owners of Studio &, talked to DGO about her haunting, contemplative work.
How would you describe your work? Unsettling is a word that a lot of people bring up. Or spooky. To me, my pieces don’t feel that way because of where they’re coming from – how they express the worlds that I experience internally … To me they feel like stories. I tend towards the minor key. The darker stories that are bittersweet. The things that hurt because they’re so pretty.
What are the current mediums you work in?There are two main things I do. Most of what you see at Studio & is alternative photographic process printmaking. It involves lots of darkroom work. I use vintage film cameras to take photos, then I develop the film and use a UV alt-processing station because the sun is not always the easiest tool to use at this altitude. You don’t get consistent exposures. I use multiple coatings of photosensitive chemicals like VanDyke Brownprints and UV reactive dyes.
I also do wearable sculpture and performance installation. I have done a bunch of shows where I workshopped with performance artists to wear the pieces and do performance installations in pop-up events that last two to four hours on an opening night. Then the pieces display on mannequins for the rest of the show.
You used to be a part of the on-hiatus Salt Fire Circus. Tell us more of how you incorporate that performative art interest within your work now.Salt Fire circus was focused on the theatrical end of performance art. It really showed me my love of performance art and wearable art. I was peripherally involved with making costumes for the circus. I always made my own, but getting to explore wearable art and wearable sculpture and performance art, I think the Salt Fire Circus really opened that up for me.
Now we have 20 Moons in town who are a performance art group. 20 Moons are our sisters in contemporary arts. We love them. We always talk about how Studio & has a crush on 20 Moons. We invite them to collaborate with us. Our Day of the Dead show this year, they’ll be doing a performance element and Maureen May is going to have a show here this fall called “Still/Unstill” and she invited 20 Moons to do a piece for that.
Your printmaking and your wearable sculptures seem to explore two very different tones. One of the things that bridges them is this idea of participation. I’m really process-driven in my art. The process is the performance. The reason all of my printmaking is so process-heavy is that I can’t help it. There’s 12 steps in everything or more. I make it really hard on myself. But part of that is that I want the audience to see that print and see the brush strokes and the stitching and see the hand of the artist in it. For me, as a viewer, that draws me in and shifts me from a consumer of the art to a witness and participant in it.
So the art piece becomes a storytelling unit rather than only beautiful object?Totally. I think of art at its pinnacle and human beings as culture creating and storytellers. The wearables are much more immediate. All of the performance installations I’ve created have been such that the audience interacts and is intermingled with the art. There isn’t a stage. So the audience doesn’t necessarily know what to do. A lot of my pieces have been mirrored and are reflective. The audience has an opportunity to interact with the pieces and see themselves in the bodies and reflections of the performers. That idea of exploring how we are in our bodies and exploring bringing art off the walls into the body and bringing it to a participatory realm, it is really important to me. Because I always think about ‘What is art for?’ and for me, it comes to storytelling and collaboration and participation and being able to think about ourselves and each other complexly.
There is a consistent, sometimes quiet, social justice element to your work …I have spent my whole life as a social justice activist. I’ve been having a big, internal dialogue lately about the usefulness of overt political messages in art versus not. Is it my duty to be more overt about the social justice elements? As a person and as an artist I don’t want to be pigeonholed into having to have my work speak overtly about all of the identity flags that I wave. She’s obviously queer. She’s obviously a first generation American. Those sorts of things. All of those experiences that I have are the lenses that I see everything. It’s the lenses that I see my parents being ill or my friend passing away or dealing with divorce, so I guess the answer is that it is really important to me that my work comes from a place of needing to be made. I feel like I have a duty to be a culture creator and storyteller in the world and to connect people with the more complex stories of who we are.
So showing that social justice as artist experience rather than overt statements?I had a conversation with another artist in town not too long ago. She is of Korean American descent and she was questioning, “Do we have a duty as artists to be generous with the audience?” Do we let them into our story or can we create art that stands on its own and allows the audience an entry point into the experience that is theirs’ alone? I don’t know how to answer that. I know what really spurred me to question overt versus more subtle content was the political arc of last year, the shows I was doing within that time, and the bodies of work I was creating. I was asked to be a participant in a show as a queer person. But what came up was “Ah, but I think we might need another queer person because your content isn’t overtly queer.” Because my pieces were graveyards and Mexico. And I really, really was super triggered by that and wanted to think it through. I did end up doing my graveyard pieces. They were what I was called to make and the series ended up being called “Absence is Better Than Nothing, I, II, & III.” It was the idea of the identities that we carry and the absences we carry and how those build who we are and what people expect from us.
What’s 2017 look like for you?The Durango Arts Center is participating in the “Fashion Fusion” again, which is a fundraiser. They asked me if I would be their designer this year. I created a wearable sculpture made out vintage romance novels and Plexiglas. It is a whole cape with a collar and chains and I’m creating a wearable tech accessory with a friend of mine … I’m submitting work to a show in Santa Fe at the Center for Contemporary Art. It’s called “Cryin’ Out Loud” and I’m submitting four Plexiglas wearable pieces and hopefully a performance installation. I have a couple of shows that are ongoing – a Whitman-inspired show called “I Sing the Body Electric,” which is continuing to travel. It is going to a several more places in the United States and then Finland. And, I have show at Studio & in September.
Patty TempletonDGO Staff Writer