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Art Fri Sep 16 2011

Briefing Room: Interview with Chicago Polymath Art Wave-Maker Jenny Lam

For this edition of Briefing Room, we check in with artist, artist agent, writer, and independent curator Jenny Lam. A recent transplant to Chicago from a stint at Columbia University in New York, Lam has embraced her engagement of the Chicago scene with wave-making zeal, landing in the press and in conversations for her work at the Zhou B Art Center, 4Art and, most recently, at the Fulton Street Collective. "Exquisite Corpse," the frenetic exhibit she organized for the Collective, drew notable crowds for its open embrace of artistic collaboration. We sat down with the Northbrook native to get some perspective on her splashy re-introduction to the Chicago scene, and here's what she had to say. (scroll down for photo credits)


Tell us a little about your background, what brought you here, etc., and what got you interested in art.

I grew up in the suburbs of Chicago and lived in New York City for four years while studying at Columbia University. There, I split my time running the undergraduate art gallery, Postcrypt; interning at Christie's and at Eyebeam; getting weirded out by people folding their pizza slices; and tagging. And yeah I guess there was schoolwork too. I returned to the Midwest after graduating two years ago (a severe lack of money brought me back), and I moved into the city about half a year ago.

I've been interested in art since I gracefully coasted out of the womb. I've been drawing and writing for as long as I can remember. My parents literally have stacks and stacks of drawings and stories from my childhood, beginning from when I was a baby. I'd write my own books and illustrate them, stapling together sheets of computer paper.

What really got me hooked on art was visiting Disneyland when I was four. I idolized Walt Disney. I never missed a single Disney animated feature. For the longest time, The Hunchback of Notre Dame was my favorite film, and I got to see some of the behind-the-scenes work on that. When I was eight, my dad mailed some of my "books" to a Disney director, who was impressed and invited my parents and me to a free private tour of the animation studios in Burbank, California. Afterwards, he asked me to draw something for him on the spot, and he told me I could have a job there as a storyboard artist--often how directors start out--when I turned eighteen. I turned him down in favor of a college education. And now I spend my days stealing toilet paper rolls from cafés and YouTubing videos of kpop rap duo GD&TOP.Tell us a little about your practice. Where do you situate your present interests art historically?

I place myself strictly within a poststructural deconstructivist postmodernism as viewed through a dialogic lens of feminist epistemology...yeah, no. I never really think about my interests within an art historical context and if people actually do try to deliberately categorize themselves in that manner, that's ridiculous.



If I had to, though, I suppose I'd say I'm mostly drawn to relational art. I'm interested in people and the ways in which art can actually bring people together rather than divide them (hence "Exquisite Corpse"). Anything that refutes the art world's tendencies towards the elitist and exclusive.

In New York, I created hundreds of self-addressed, pre-stamped postcards and left them in public places throughout the city. Written on one side was the prompt, "Tell me one thing you dream of doing before you die. Use this card as your canvas." I included a code on the bottom corner of each card, so when the cards returned to me, I looked at the codes and was able to pinpoint where each card had been found. In the end, I created a map of New York City from all these people's dreams.

The project blurred the lines between private and public; many of the confessions were deeply personal, like diary entries--here were these people confiding in me, an anonymous, faceless stranger. Letter-writing can indeed be intimate--you're addressing your thoughts to one person--but the very nature of a postcard is public; there's no envelope or anything to keep others from seeing what you've written.

I think that's why I'm so interested in street art; you can't get any more public than the street.

And I'm interested in critical theory, especially intersections among race, class, gender, and sexuality. I've done things that are essentially tirades against Gwen Stefani. (Reunite with No Doubt all you want, Gwen; I will never forget the Harajuku Girls.)

What are some of your major influences? Minor ones? Influences outside of a strictly art-defined context?

Besides what I've already mentioned: Dreams. German Expressionism. Music. Poetry. Pop culture. Cultural identity. Middle class guilt (my dad grew up in a slum; I grew up in an affluent, predominantly white suburb). The angst and ambition of Generation Y.

Above all, I'm a big cartoon and animation geek. Other than Disney, as a kid, I loved Animaniacs, Tiny Toons, Batman: TAS, Gargoyles, and The Simpsons. Animation's probably the most underappreciated art form. I don't care if people consider it low-brow or juvenile. It's far superior to most of what's out there. Just look at Pixar (minus cash cow Cars--sorry, John Lasseter); if something is able to move a room full of grown adults to tears (like, legit ugly-crying), that's art.

Where do you see yourself going in your work that you haven't yet?

Up and out.

Upcoming projects/shows for you?

I'm creating an online gallery for my artist representation business. Of course I love going to gallery openings but, really, how many people are there solely for the art and not for the schmoozing and free booze? And how many people visit galleries during regular daytime hours when there isn't a reception? For the general public, white cube galleries may seem intimidating, while alternative spaces may seem like they're (and often are) in the middle of nowhere and hard to get to. The digital age has allowed for the democratization of art.

That said, I'll still be curating shows in real life. Nothing finalized as of now, but you can keep updated at my blog.

One of these days, for a show, I'll sell out and get a corporate sponsor or two. (Then would I have to ditch the self-anointed indie label? Is indie a business practice or can it be defined by a specific aesthetic and ideal? What is an indie curator? What is indie? Is indie dead? Is art dead? Etc.)


Upcoming shows/projects in Chicago that you're excited about?

Zachary Johnson is launching an artist collective, the Lolk Collective. I have three words for you: "folk street art." That should already tell you it's going to be awesome. He's looking for visual art, music, fiction, poetry, performance, etc. that's accessible and public; draws on a shared aspect of a specific community as its subject matter; and is identity-building in a fresh, creative way. One goal of the collective is to bring art to places often lacking in contemporary art. It's also an opportunity for artists to work both independently and collaboratively on projects, as well as to exhibit online and in real-world exhibitions. I'm going to be a part of it and I'm super excited about it.

Cyrus Moussavi has a project called Raw Music International and an accompanying blogsite. As its name indicates, it goes beyond Chicago and seeks to document underground music scenes around the world. So far Cy's filmed the pilot episode in Kisumu, Kenya, where he chased after rappers, Rastafarians, and traditional musicians. He spent ages editing and perfecting the thing. Someone, pick up the pilot and get the show on TV! (Which will then hopefully be ripped onto Hulu or something similar because, like many other artists, my computer is my television...)

And now for some specific dates:

Mitch McMillan is planning to launch the Kickstarter project on Sept. 15 for Bollywood Chicago Musical, kind of a flash mob style musical with local musicians.

Sandi Chaplin will be participating in Revolution of Self, which opens Friday, Sept. 23, and explores the brutally honest self-portrait.

There's the Ravenswood Art Walk Oct. 2 and 3, which will include a show of artists from the book Urban Confustions, an all-female collection of stories, poetry, nonfiction, and art from cities around the world.

There's the Pilsen Open Studios Oct. 15 and 16. Amanda Mudrovich will be participating at Mestizo Café on 18th Street.

And Robin Rios of 4Art Gallery will be participating in the Bridgeport Art Walk Oct. 21 through 23.

Emmanuel Pratt has this great initiative called The Mycelia Project, which is an educational collaboration that seeks to unite various communities through hands-on, experimental projects that promote learning focused on food, soil, water, and energy sustainability. Emmanuel's in residency at the Hyde Park Art Center through October 31.

Image credits (in order of appearance):
Jenny Lam. Courtesy Jenny Lam.

From "Exquisite Corpse" at the Fulton Street Collective: Cassie Hamrick, I am Afraid of Horses. I am Afriad of Being Bitten. (Hip Hip Hippo), 2011. Cotton fabric, synthetic batting. Photo Michael Workman.

From "Exquisite Corpse" at the Fulton Street Collective: Veronica Stein, Abjection, 2011. Series of 8 pillows: digital image on wedding organza, embroidery thread, processed cotton fibers. Photo Michael Workman.

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