Jennifer Sullivan is a video, performance, collage, and installation artist who has exhibited at such prestigious places as The Kitchen and MoMA's PS1. Her 2006 video, One-Week Walden, received critical acclaim from the New York Times (among other glowing reviews), she's completed several prestigious artist in residency programs, and she is currently hard at work at the Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture where she's finishing Adult Movie, her latest video performance project. Adult Movie will premiere at the artist-run Las Cienegas Projects in Los Angeles this fall. Laying out all of this accomplishment, praise, and prestige is just to say: At first, I didn't really get it.
I mean, I was immediately intrigued by Sullivan and her project. I was very curious about her work and what the internet had to say about it, and I wanted to know more about how and why she makes what she does. But I didn't really get it. In fact, I wanted to dislike it, as some of us are wont to do when the more uncomfortable truth is we just.don't.really.get.it.
Despite attending a flurry of openings and exhibitions, spending much of life swimming in a (mostly metaphorical but occasionally also literal) pool of creative humans, taking some art history and theory classes here and there, and so on, I know that I continue to know nothing about Art. And yet, I still wanted to wrap my mind around the authenticity, or legitimacy, of Sullivan's work, especially because I got the sense she's not making art just for folks who know about Art. Something about her, and what I thought to be her creative intentions, pushed me to attempt a deeper level of access. I wanted to know if Jennifer Sullivan was being sincere. I wanted to know who was declaring it art and why. And I wanted to know why the answers to those questions were important to me in my overall response to her creation.
I could see a little Cindy Sherman in there. Some Shana Moulton. Some Miranda July meets Andy Warhol meets Lena Dunham in an American Apparel dressing room in Berlin. I didn't quite know what to make of the references and parallels and wardrobe, but at least they helped to anchor me in context. I wasn't sure if I liked Sullivan's work, but you know, MoMa and the New York Times do, so…how does that saying go? "Opinions are like a--holes," is it? As with most "good" art (pathetically sweeping generalization aside), whether or not I like something is irrelevant; like it or not, I knew immediately that even Sullivan's project video does exactly what I believe meaningful work can do: engage, disarm, complicate, and provoke.
Sullivan's art is quite purposely without boundaries. The "This Is Art; This Is Not Art" paradigm may have been shattered for a while, but we as viewers continue to be confronted with the question, especially in the video, installation, and conceptual mediums. If making art from life and life from art is impossible to distinguish, then "This Is Performance; This is Not Performance" is an outdated dichotomy. It's a dividing line that was tackled and blurred long ago when society was deemed a "Spectacle" and Meaning, Authenticity, and Reality became constructions that have imploded and obliterated themselves. Man, what I wouldn't give to be a fly on the wall of the semester abroad dorm room where all those white-haired Frenchmen are sitting around drinking cheap port and watching Japanese cat videos on YouTube.
Sooo. In sum: I decided to contact Jennifer Sullivan. Before I launched into some frenzied attempt to either agree and connect or dismiss and critique, I realized there's a third option — to explore. One of the most wonderful things about this job is that if I want to really understand something from the artist's perspective — or even just have a conversation about the value of "getting it" — I can simply send a project creator some questions. (Fun Fact: You can too! There's a big "Send Message" button on all project pages! Use it! Knowledge = Power! 4 Serious!)
In her answers, Sullivan describes her work as an "ongoing struggle" of "self-acceptance," an attempt to "let, accept, and present that unguarded self, as well as allow others to identify with that or feel more able to accept themselves as they are as well." She explains how "even in assuming a persona, the willingness to be vulnerable and to fail publicly" is a "large part" of her interest in performance. She quotes John Cassavetes' "Just say what you are. And what you are is good enough," as an inspiring mantra that permeates her life and work. In all Sullivan's thoughts and insights, that fearlessness, or at the very least, the genuine aspiration and attempt to be fearless, is as clear as it is impressive. Exploring Sullivan's latest project and artistic intentions, it's so sincerely apparent that being an artist invites the world to attempt to accept you at the same time as you attempt to accept yourself. That is difficult, honest, and fearless work. And that is the work of Sullivan's art. What follows is our Q&A.Read more