Instead of visiting the studio of video/photo mentor Jessica Ann Peavy, the Art Ready group got to see her solo show, Emergency Contraception, at Collette Blanchard Gallery on the Lower East Side, where most of Jessica’s latest artwork is currently on view. This provided an introduction to both Jessica’s work and work process as a fine art/experimental video artist, and the commercial gallery world.
When we first arrived at the gallery, students looked independently around the show, which covered three upstairs and downstairs rooms of the gallery and included huge wall-sized video projections, large still photo prints, and a series of small video monitors whose characters and sound effects seemed to dialogue with one another. These pieces were all united in their subject matter: women in close-up poses recounting the details of intimate experiences, or dishing out tidbits of gossip.
In a group discussion largely directed by students’ questions, Jessica explained that such gossip and “everyday storytelling” is the inspiration for her work. According to her artist statement, she is interested in “where the lines between fact and fiction are blurred and accounts of actual events can be exaggerated and self aggrandizing…The single channel videos depict vivid first person accounts of romantic encounters that are open to doubt. Four characters confide their secrets, desires, trials, confrontations and internal conflicts to a trusted viewer; yet, the videos encourage the viewer to question the objectivity of each subject, their narratives, and to examine their own prejudices when determining believability.” Jessica compared this work to reality TV, in which characters, often pitted against each other, confide their inner feelings about their situations to a camera, knowing they will be seen by millions of viewers.
She also explained how “prejudices” about whose stories to believe can relate to cultural background and gender, and the associated gestures and vernacular speech patterns. Jesscia’s video and photo subjects are almost always women of color. Usually they improvise the stories based on Jessica’s prompt questions, and sometimes there are counter narratives (in one video, a man’s voice in the background gives his own account of an incident described by a woman).
Recently, Jessica’s practice has also started to incorporate live performance. At the opening event for this show, she and two other actors had staged a street performance outside the gallery in which the performers told three different versions of the same story, and passersby were asked to settle the dispute by determining who was telling the truth. This became a “case study on what makes someone believable”–for example, Jessica noticed that the people who gestured a lot when speaking were more likely to be accused of lying.
Jessica’s talk also touched upon the evolution of this work and her own career as an artist. In high school, she had loved both photography and writing, so she decided to attend NYU film school as an undergraduate to “put together photography and storytelling.” When her college professors described her work as “avant-garde,”she realized that she was more interested in experimental art and performance art than making traditional full-length movies. This decision propelled her to attend an MFA graduate program at the School of Visual Arts. We discussed how MFA programs can be helpful in giving artists time to develop new ideas as well as important career connections and friendships.
Now, as a working artist, Jessica spends approximately 50 percent of her time creating new work, and 50 percent teaching and working other part-time jobs to earn a living. Making new work is expensive–artists doing photo and video usually need to apply for grants in order to afford the necessary equipment, such as HD cameras, laptops, and projectors. “You need to have good writing skills as an artist, if you want to get your work funded,” Jessica explained, “and apply to EVERYTHING you qualify for–don’t miss a deadline! You might apply to 30 different things and only get accepted to one or two, but even if you get rejected, the judges might like and remember your work and contact you for future opportunities.”
Jessica also advised students to see as many art shows as possible, including going to galleries in Chelsea at no cost and taking advantage of their student IDs to get into museums for free.
Artist residency programs can also be extremely helpful in connecting artists with time and space to make new work, as well as funding and exposure. Jessica was a Studio Artist at Smack Mellon right after graduate school and described the support Smack Mellon has given her over the years, including lending her several of the projectors for her show at Collette Blanchard.
We discussed the relationship between an artist and a commercial gallery: while Collette Blanchard gallery will gain 50% of Jessica’s sales, the gallery takes on the critical role of promoting and selling the work, as well as bringing it recognition and legitimacy in the art world, something that is very difficult for an artist to do on his/her own. Jessica also described gallery administration as a way to pursue a fulfilling career in the arts without actually making artwork: “You can do what Collette does and be in the arts not as a creator, but an agent for other artists.”
Jessica believes that to choose the path of “creation” in the arts, “You have to love being an artist, because it is a lot of hard work. However, I don’t believe in the stereotype of a starving artist.” She is looking forward to mentoring any student interested in making original lens-based work like photo or video, and can also teach the basics of Adobe Photoshop and video-editing programs. She told students, “Doing this kind of work is so much more accessible now than when I was your age, with the rise of digital photo/video and the internet.”