Jen Mann

Jen Mann

Apr 20/2014
by Glen Leavitt

Jen Mann is creatively restless. “I don’t think anyone plans out how they will develop or change but things sort of happen and mature out of experiments and fun. At least that’s what has happened for me. I think that my work and ideas developed out of my own life and what is happening for me at the time that I am making them.”

The Toronto-based artist studied printmaking at the Ontario College of Art and Design, but her current work focuses on large-scale oil portraits of friends and family. These paintings begin life as digital photos which Mann shoots herself. Despite the double layer of artistic mediation between the viewer and the subject, Mann’s paintings are remarkably intimate. You feel as if you know the subjects, and care about them.

The intimacy in Mann’s work can be partly explained by the fact that she works with friends and family members instead of strangers or professional models, as well as her low-key approach to the initial photo sessions. “I think my process of shooting is sort of intimate and casual. There is a process of removing shirts, where the subject sort of reveals himself or herself. We then talk about life and catch up a bit while I shoot photos sort of randomly, not really posing a shot in any way. There is certainly rawness even in the process, and it is definitely deliberate. It is also natural to my personality and relationships with friends and family.”

Another important aspect in Mann’s work is her deliberate cultivation of imperfections. This begins with the photo sessions. While most people would choose to work from the most flattering shots taken, Mann prefers the off-shots, the pictures where the subject is blinking, or making a funny face, or looking away from the camera. “I think that there is something special about images that capture awkward or perhaps non-beautiful or posed moments. There is something beautiful in the honest moment.” Mann then heavily Photoshops her images to give them a washed-out look, and to insert various digital “glitches” that most of us would consider undesirable when uploading photos to Facebook or Tumblr.


Mann chooses to replicate visual cues from the digital world in her painting because she sees that world as a part of the reality that we now inhabit, and through which we experience our most important relationships. “The color edits and pixilations reference digital media, because the content of the work references modern relationships and understanding of people today, through avatars, profiles, and manicured facades of personality.” Since our interactions with the people we care about increasingly take place through digital media, it makes sense to reference that aspect of our lives in a painted portrait.

While many commentators fret about the increasing volume of digital information available at our fingertips and what it may mean for our brains, our lives, and our relationships, Jen Mann is more upbeat. At least from the perspective of art appreciation, she sees the current glut of digital information as an opportunity, not a threat. “I think the Tumblr age of unlimited scroll images has definitely affected the way images are disseminated to the mass public. Which is great for artists. People who may never have been able to see your work or who may never visit a gallery can now easily view art from their bed on their laptops. Everyone is able to see and share images. Everyone is connected. And everyone is influenced at least in some way by the unlimited amount of images which flood the internet and sneak into our lives in so many ways.”


It’s striking that given the ubiquity and ready availability of digital photography and digital imagery anyone would still want to see an old-fashioned oil painting, or make one. Film photography was supposed to kill painting, and yet the art form thrived in the twentieth century. Digital photography made it cheap and easy for anyone to take an almost unlimited number of photos and yet it is still satisfying to see a real painting, even, in Jenn Mann’s case, a painting which deliberately mimics the appearance of a digital photo. Mann believes the effort required to produce a painting is exactly what makes it so appealing. “I don’t think that painting will really ever die. There is something about the artist’s hand involved in the actual creation of the work which is alluring and almost mystical. I think that the labour involved in creating a piece also gives it this authority and deliberateness that a photo may not have.” This may also explain the intimacy in Mann’s work: the contrast between the source material, which is digital in nature, and the end product, which is painstakingly created by hand. Because of the digital source material inspiring Mann’s art we are reminded, even more than usual with a painting, of the deliberate care that goes into its production and the intense subjectivity of the artist behind it.


While her current approach to painting is working extraordinarily well for her, it has changed in the past and Mann believes it will change again. “I haven’t always worked from photos. I have worked with live subjects; I have also worked in many mediums. I think this process works for me at the moment. I won’t say that my work will always be like this because I don’t think I could ever stick to one style or technique.”

The Tumblr age of unlimited scroll images has definitely affected the way images are disseminated to the mass public.

Already Mann is preparing to debut some new work, which she says will be a departure from the past. “My new work is visually related but also much different than my last series. I have taken a new turn. I am very excited about this work, and I feel like to summarize the work right now wouldn’t really do it justice.” Her new work will appear this fall at the Neubacher Shor Contemporary gallery in Toronto.

Words by Glen Leavitt

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Juha Arvid Helminen

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