If the soul and the ego were objects we could look at, the soul would be a translucent heart beating.
Jeannette Mundt’s new show at Michael Benevento in Los Angeles toys with atypical notions of space in a classic medium—paint.
Gertrude Stein, reality TV, J. W. M. Turner, Google images, modernist furniture, and professional photography all serve as parts of the mash-up of models and objects of critique that Jeanette Mundt deploys. Her current installation of paintings at Michael Benevento’s Los Angeles gallery is at first glance a polite meditation on the representation of private, domestic space flipped and exposed in the more public space of the gallery. This dynamic alone offers a plethora of contradictions for one who wants to read further into the contextual relationship; but it is the sourcing of images, decisions for their coupling, engagement with the gallery’s unorthodox space, and embedded critique of spectacle culture that resonates with our day to day mediated experience and belies the work’s initial reading. I was curious to hear more about the layered meanings that unfold in these pieces and how they reflect and engage with questions of perception and attention in contemporary culture.
Amanda Parmer I find it strange that there are no subjects in your paintings of domestic interiors because I think of them as figurative. I think of the Living Room paintings for example as figurative in the sense that a home and the commodities that populate it often construct a person nowadays to the point that this space comes to stand in for the individual, almost more so than an actual image of them. So though I understand the absence of the figure in your images it is also a bit unnerving. It makes me think of K8 Hardy’s work that is in the Whitney Biennial now which is also absent of figures but deals with subjectivity, engaging with fashion advertising akin to your engagement with the selling of domestic spaces, both resonant of the experience economy in different ways.
Jeanette Mundt The emphasis on the objects and commodities that make up a home or living space is exaggerated to such a degree, especially at the moment, with things like reality television shows reinforcing the need to have a home that reflects the personality of the people that inhabit it, that the human is pushed completely aside. It is not shocking or confusing, but is a jump-off for a lot of conversation about the family, the individual; the humanity has been disavowed. The absence of the subject, of course, also asks the viewer to take on the role to some degree, to carry that burden.
AP Right, that makes sense. Maybe it would be helpful to backtrack for a moment and setup a framework for thinking about the physical aspects of the show. So there are two groups of paintings: Living Room and Celebrate and then within each of those groups there are clusters of paintings that relate in the way that they are painted. Some are painted sequentially, using the most recent painting as the material for the next without referencing the original image; then there is a group that contains several versions of the same image, all from the original. Both sets have a lot of mutations in the image as they’re painted pretty loosely but what is compelling to me is the different ways in which each shifts. For example, in the Living Roomseries—which is all from the same original image—they each employ a slightly different, individualized, version of the same space (the patterning on the couch, lighting in the space, details on the walls or floor). Could you talk a bit about these two types of reproduction?
JM The execution of the different series began as an attempt to confront the general experience of images via the Internet—more specifically, the seemingly endless mutability of images that results when they enter the digital/inter-web world. I wanted to enter this conversation first by conveying the same shifts in mood, shape, color, aspect ratio, et cetera. that images undergo in digital space. I set up exercises in painting as an attempt to do this: for the living room series of four paintings I worked with shifts in size and source. The first painting is 9 × 12 and painted from the photographic source, and the next is 16 × 20 and painted from the painting of the photographic source. The third is 9 × 12 again and painted from the preceding painting, and the last is 16 × 20, painted from the preceding painting. This series demonstrates massive shifts in color and shape as the painting devolves, as it moves away from the photograph. It really speaks to how far the reproduction can be pushed away from the original; the experience can be completely different.
The second Living Room series was painted two at time, one stroke on one canvas, the same stroke on the second canvas, in an attempt to work between visual and physical memory. These canvases are all the same size. When two were completed I put them away and waited a week or so before painting two more again, one stroke on one canvas, followed by the same stroke on the other. I referenced the photograph throughout for this series. The differences here are less extreme—the colors shift, but the contrast remains steady and the aspect ratio does not get confused. The differences in this series can be seen more in the rendering of objects and fabrics—the rugs are worked out very differently each time, posing questions about seeing—looking at the same image over and over again, but interpreting it differently each time.
AP It’s interesting the dynamic that is established. You have this prolonged temporality in reproducing the images as paintings that slow down the way you make them but I find I look at them more slowly, carefully, as paintings than I would if I saw these spaces in the pages of a design magazine—which I gather is where you sourced them. But then what of the temporality in Celebrate?
JM It is more like a film—passage of time, et cetera. It is different in that every painting is based on a different photo. The content is a view of Lower Manhattan at night, during a July 4th fireworks display. The majority of the scene doesn’t change at all, just the progression of the fireworks display changes, clearly marking a progression in time. The colors and shapes in the foreground shift unavoidably as a person painted them, but the attempt to be machine-like, to be able to reproduce these photographs over and over again is clear in what remains constant. The progression of time was important as it added a cinematic aspect to the image, which speaks to the digital world/space—a place of infinite reproducibility of images, video, et cetera.
AP I remember in your last show you filled pots with dried pussywillows, so that when one was walking around the space it didn’t feel so stark, one didn’t feel on display looking at the work. These pots and plants, that were roughly to scale with one’s body, made one less self-conscious as a viewer.
JM Yes—that’s important, I think. To take a certain weight off of the art viewing experience.
AP In this show one of the paintings is hung on a mirror, what were you thinking about with that?
JM The front of the gallery is a two-way mirror, so I wanted to put a mirror directly across from the entrance so the viewer watches themselves move to the doorway, and then is immediately dealing with their reflection again when they enter. The mirror is also the wall for the singular painting, to turn the repetition/reproduction idea on its head—the viewer is double or is reproduced. It might be a bit of a game, but it works in the space of the gallery entrance.
AP That’s pretty great, it could be the whole show. I like the sort of tongue-in-cheek reproduction, the mirror that only requires the viewer for its execution. It makes me think of the talk Ewa Lajer-Burcharth presented on Chardin in Frankfurt a few years ago. She read into the process of painting for Chardin as one that is not entirely rational or physical but very much psychical. She talks about it as a battlefield, a place where the artist is not necessarily in control but fighting it out with the painting, that the image has its own existence to contend with.
JM Yes—that’s the strange space of painting. She also states, also in reference to Chardin, that painting is a typography of doubt.
AP It seems like the rules of the game you’re setting up for yourself with these paintings are something you’re translating as a system for this sort of automatic reproduction that the viewer’s field of vision inadvertently, and unwittingly, engages with.
JM Yes—exactly. I didn’t know I was going there when I started, but it’s where I ended up. And it ends up, for me, moving into a conversation about the weight or value really of reproducing an image, of fetishizing an image. In the art world the works gain in value as they are reproduced, the more we see it the more we want it. In other worlds, the absolute opposite is true. Seth Price writes about this in Dispersion. So I’ve made the same images over and over again, but I’ve made separate paintings—many different paintings, but only a handful of works.
AP Right, I have been thinking about that recently—the effects of ubiquity in relation to context—in relationship to what is fashionable, beautiful or even just acceptable. You had made these earlier paintings that were pretty explicitly erotic and then moved away from making those kinds of images. Is this because it seemed to be complicit with producing an acceptance and desire for that kind of representation? That reminds me of Seth Price’s account, but also is the kind of mimetic exacerbation Hal Foster refers to.
JM Yes, though at the time I didn’t recognize that. I became quickly aware of the fact that the audience wanted to engage with the eroticism and not the criticism I was speaking too, so I abandoned it pretty fast. It was youthful optimism that was shut down quickly.
AP It also makes me think about the way in which your work steps away from a reification of images. That their reading is always in flux depending on the moment and context of their viewing. Also that by exposing how you saw the same image so differently at different moments, or the same spectacle from slightly different perspectives that is still identifiable as the same scene—that is a move away from the kind of hegemony of Google searches and a return to an insistence on difference based on context, the context of one’s psychic space and the historical moment. This, of course, reminds one of Walter Benjamin’s Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.
JM Google searches are synonymous with definitions at this point—an image-based Wikipedia. It is very controlling. Seeing is so malleable. Our understanding of this historical moment is always changing, we can’t possibly be consistent in our seeing, in our psychic space—it speaks directly to the Benjamin text—so much does. The paintings also reflect my own attention span. I work carefully in one area on one painting and then that area in the next painting is a few quick brush strokes and done. It is very dependent on time, psychic space, etc. I work very quickly and am very impatient—it speaks to the digital world.
AP It’s a funny situation that we’re doing this on Google Chat—because I think of your work as a counter to this kind of instant access technology. It seems to be pushing against the ways in which a Google image homogenizes our individual searches based on the records of our previous experience, you loose the agency to actively define what you are not looking for so that this one-way mode of communication is eroding how we define what something is in the world (by what something is just as much as by what it is not). So, it is quite ironic that you were just saying how the paintings reflect the way in which your focus can be pointed and fixed and then quickly impatient. It seems to me a mirror of the kind of attention span we are all developing, conditioned by the internet as these sort of extensions of how we think about the world.
AP I was in a seminar with Carrie Lambert-Betty a few months ago and she was saying that knowledge now is not about the facts we have in our memories but our ability to locate them. She seemed to be saying that intelligence is about our ability to source information and understand its structure.
JM That’s great. I was listening to Sturtevant go off about knowledge versus information and was thinking about this separation—I was trying to gauge how I rate intelligence, how one decides when they are experiencing an intelligent person or moment or show or meal, etc.
AP I’ve thought of your work a lot in relationship to the way women’s roles are constructed and the relationship of that to masculinity and different ways of sharing time and space that are conditioned by social norms. I feel like the living rooms are doing this. They are considering the home as the heart of this domestic space that is shared by a family. If these paintings were made in the fifties I think you could have looked at these images of living rooms as portraits of housewives, the home being a self-produced enclosure for that character in society. But here it makes me think more about a nuclear family—and the absence of shared time, just these spaces for individuals to psychically inhabit. It seems to go hand-in-hand with the atomization we are experiencing via Internet culture—even in this format for interviewing.
JM Exactly—the living room has undergone changes over the decades—it was a place for the female to present how well she maintained the house the husband bought, et cetera. Now those roles have changed so drastically, as has the notion of entertaining guests. The living room has lost importance just as the nuclear family has fallen apart and so much of social interaction has moved into the digital world. I am working on a series of office spaces—conferences rooms at the moment. Again, without a subject, but approaching the ever-changing role of the female. She was once bound to the living room, and now she is bound to the conference room. The movement has some pretense of bettering herself. But is it better? What is the workplace versus the living room?
AP Waged. Not that that is better, necessarily. It all depends. I just mean the labor is measured and monitored. How explicit did you intended to be in referring to spectacle culture with the fireworks images?
JM I am interested in the diminishing of the spectacle—the audience becoming the performer. I’m interested in our constant demand to participate. I’m not sure where I stand on it, but I want to look into it.
AP Michel Foucault says we’ve moved from a society of discipline to that of control, as the title, Celebrate, has this very deadpan humor, a kind of cold and dry directive to emote.
JM Exactly—fireworks are a command to celebrate that is followed worldwide—it’s sick.
AP Right, it seems like the ability to use the spectacle to our own ends is more and more available.
JM It is and “our own ends” take so many terrifying shapes, it’s a little scary.
For more on Jeannette Mundt go to her website.
Amanda Parmer is a writer and curator based in New York. She is a contributing writer for Art in America and works with the Whitney Independent Study Program where she was a 2010 Helena Rubenstein Fellow.
If the soul and the ego were objects we could look at, the soul would be a translucent heart beating.