Profile | Jen DeNike: Masterful Modern-Day Myths

All images courtesy of Jen DeNike, Anat Ebgi Gallery and LAND.

NYC/LA artist Jen DeNike draws for a legacy of literature, film and pop culture archetypes in her layered photography, sculpture and performative works. Creating new mythologies or cultural narratives that spin out of her own very personal experiences, relationships and intimacies, DeNike’s vision brings out a sort of surrealistic quality. Aside from the heavily layered visuals and stories, there is a graceful rhythmic quality to all of DeNike’s works, which makes one think she has a background in dance or choreography. But for DeNike, as she explained when we talked via phone, it is more about capturing the filmic moment, or what Deleuze refers to as “crystal-image.”

“Steve Reich early 60’s sound pieces (‘Come Out’ & ‘It’s Gonna Rain’)  influenced my early video works,” she says. “In particular what Reich did with his works extracting sound bites from real events and creating something new through repetition until it becomes something else.”


Installation shot of Jen DeNike's "If She Hollers" at Anat Ebgi Gallery.

Installation shot of Jen DeNike’s “If She Hollers” at Anat Ebgi Gallery.

Her recent show solo show If She Hollers at Anat Ebgi Gallery (November 14–December 19, 2015) was focused around three videos — The Pimp, The Cat and The Boxer — all shot in LA, that present her takes on cultural archetypes that happen to do with the Black male body and its double lens, but not purposefully so.

The work that she created for this show came from both a literary and very personal place. Many of the ideas for these three videos comes from Chester Hines’ book If He Hollers, Let Him Go, which is about a man that arrives in Los Angeles after the war and is trying to find himself in this not-yet-developed landscape, and a friend she made in LA who was going through a similar experience upon returning from Berlin. In her video The Boxer, DeNike also references the first chapter of Invisible Man, which involves the Battle Royale boxing match and the performative nature of the boxer.

In her video The Cat, a man dressed in a cartoonish costume roams from pool to pool, traversing Los Angeles backyards. No one is around to stop him or even question what he is doing when he jumps into pools, swims, floats, or just chills out. At the end of his journey, he confronts his twin self, who is without fur and wearing only yellow swimming bottoms. The cat wanders through nine swimming pools, which is also a nod to one of DeNike’s favorite artists Ed Ruscha. Another layered meaning here is the popular tale of a cat having nine lives. This wandering from pool to pool, this desire of the self as other and the self as self is also mimetic, which is represented through the pool itself. One thinks of Narcissus endlessly searching for his reflection, something of a search for the self, or of Oscar Wilde’s Portrait of Dorian Gray. If the image ever does surface, the reality will be more Michael Jackson horror of “Man in the Mirror” than just a poetic glance at one’s self. At times this mirrored self is difficult to differentiate from the sort of symbiosis that occurs in twin relationships; the main difference, however, is that the recognition of self occurs in self, not in another. The cat character is a Charlie Chaplin funny vagabond type, or the cheshire cat in Alice in Wonderland.

In DeNike’s work, we also see Jungian elements of characters fighting with their shadow self, more popularly known as the “dark side” of our psyche or “the sum of all personal and collective psychic elements which, because of their incompatibility with the chosen conscious attitude, are denied expression in life,” according to Jungian analyst Aniela Jaffe

Installation from DeNike's LAND exhibition

Installation from DeNike’s FRAME RATE: JEN DENIKE at the Soho House (LAND)

In 2013, DeNike worked with LAND at the Soho House in West Hollywood to create FRAME RATE: JEN DENIKE. For this piece, she created a site-specific version of her own take on Lolita, using a combination of live performance and constructed narrative.

Aside from using archetypes and literary figures in her work, DeNike often times references vernacular sporting events and Americana. We see this in Flag Girls (2007), in which she photographs girls wrapped in flags from 1918. This work brings up the constant conservative American war on womens’ bodies, which we are constantly reminded of thanks to national debates about federal government funding of Planned Parenthood.

Jen DeNike, "Flag Girls" (2007)

Jen DeNike, “Flag Girls” (2007)

DeNike first discovered visual art growing up on the East Coast in Connecticut and New York. She says she was most influenced by her sister and her father.

“My dad was a very eclectic character, he had a master’s in English Literature, dropped out of Yale Law School, then became a farmer. We had tree farms in upstate New York and cranberry bogs in Massachusetts, where I was often put to work,” says DeNike.

DeNike’s older sister was a filmmaker. Five years her senior, her sister Kalvin made super 8 and 16mm films. DeNike started assisting her from age 12 onward, which is when she started thinking about wanting to make art.

Her use of mythologies is also reminiscent of Carrie Schneider, whose work is a beautiful mixture of historical-meets-personal narrative, the intimacy of close friendships, the familiar familial, and the subtle tension created by one’s environment. Her work seems to always return to literary notions or a core narrative, for she herself is a storyteller as much as a visual artist.

“I grew up thinking about narrative and characters in stories,” says DeNike. “I was encouraged to read adult books at an early age,  and my favorite was Moby Dick.”