Jason Jenn: A Fresh, Dynamic Performance Artist Transforms the Scene in Los Angeles
Written by Genie Davis
To see artist Jason Jenn perform is to witness drama, art, and an intense, exciting sense of having seen something completely new and fresh.
Involved in theatre since childhood, Jenn says his “performative spirit” evolved while training and working with Rachel Rosenthal between 2002-2009. Rosenthal, an interdisciplinary performance artist, revealed something important to Jenn: “how vital the medium is when well done.” He adds that when he first came to LA to pursue a film career “I never intended performance art as a trajectory, but something in me always felt incomplete, and performance art filled the hunger. I continue to discover new possibilities for what performance-based art can be and reasons why I love it,” he says.
Today, creating engaging and meaningful works for his audiences is an intrinsic part of Jenn’s career. “I find it difficult to define my artistry – but words like multimedia, interdisciplinary, or transformative are usually involved,” he explains. “Performance definitely allows me to include a variety of art forms and interests in their creation. There is a lot of exhilaration involved, the occasional frustration, but ultimately a great freedom when developing works from start to finish.”
Jenn says he loves designing or co-designing the visual elements of his performance: props and costumes, video art, scenography. He also creates collage art, and is developing his drawing and painting skills.
“In college, I was the video artist for a lot of the theatre productions, making projections for artists like Theodora Skipitares, Maria Irene Fornes and Lisa Schlesigner,” he says.
Jenn works in video today as well, along with his LA Art Documents partner, artist Vojislav Radovanovic. “We touch on similar themes in our works, but from different perspectives that allow us to encourage each other while developing our ideas in new directions. Our partnership founding LA Art Documents in 2017 combined our love of art and backgrounds in media production/documentation. He was producing art and architecture reports in Europe for television, and I was documenting a lot of underground performance in LA and working for a video wall production and multimedia consulting company.”
According to Jenn, their collaboration has allowed him to fulfill several recent artistic visions, from costume design to body-painting, along with “other elements that have utilized his expertise in painting and his keen eye.”
The duo is also working on Radovanovic’s experimental feature-length art film, which Jenn is acting in and helping to produce. “In February 2020, we are collaborating on an installation for the What Is It About Trees exhibition at El Camino College. We have ideas to fill up the rest of our days – we like to joke we need 36 hours in a day to do them all.”
Jenn is inspired in his performances by a wide range of subjects, including nature, myths, old stories, archetypes, history, and science, which he describes as “all fertile territories. There is often much we overlook in our modern interpretations, so a great deal of my work explores seeing them in new ways. I’ve also been greatly inspired by poets, and love translating their work into staged performance art.”
Additionally, Jenn has crafted shows based on the poems of queer authors James Broughton, Harold Norse, Paul Monette, Jean Cocteau, and Constantine P. Cavafy.
“You could also say that my performance art career was inspired by the visionary artwork of Stephen Arnold, and watching the documentary film The Cockettes, about the group of hippie glitter drag performers from San Francisco in the 1970s. It was shortly after seeing that film I began working with Invisible Theatre, a queer underground performance art group, which had a lot of similar thematic elements involved and allowed us to be outrageously creative in exploring esoteric themes.”
He toured several locations performing an hour-long show accompanying the film documentary Big Joy: The Adventures of James Broughton. Jenn will be performing the show once again in January 2020 for a festival in Vashon Island, Washington.
Asked what his most exciting recent performance has been, Jenn says there are many. “I can truly say this past year has been incredible, and all the works have been exciting and illuminating on multiple levels. I really loved performing “Temptations in Fairyland” for Leonard Greco’s astonishing exhibition at MOAH: CEDAR, in which I related the history of performance art to the wild events in author Gustave Flaubert’s novel The Temptation of Saint Anthony,” he relates. “It packed a lot of fun and meaning into 30 minutes.”
Jenn also describes his performance of “Qreatures: The (w)Hole Story,” at the closing reception of Glendale OUT at ACE/121 Gallery in July as seminal, an experience both “heart-affirming and absolutely special. The piece was designed to appeal to the inner child in all of us living in calamitous times, where the animal spirits of the world gather to discuss mass extinction by humans and what to do about it.”
Jenn hopes to revisit the work involving the local school district, soon.
At the recent California 101 exhibition in Redondo Beach, Jenn had to change his original concept when the exhibition moved locations at the last minute. Instead of a site-specific work, curator Nina Zak Laddon suggested a performance at the start of the TEDx Redondo Beach talk to fit the theme Create Change.
“I proposed a series of ideas from my past works that fit the type of TED Talk format, including looking at the myth of Narcissus in a new way, which I have explored in various ways throughout my career. The concept of Narcissistic Personality Disorder is coming up a lot these days, especially since the election, and with the rise of social media and selfie-picture obsessions, so it felt important to address the issue.”
Clad in a silver jacket and using minimal props, Jenn offered a whole new take on the myth in his “Dimensionalizing Narcissus,” with his charismatic, physically active and involving performance.
“For me the idea of Narcissus falling in love with his reflection is a two-dimensional surface level interpretation of the original Greek myth. We can also see the myth in three-dimensional aspect, which goes deeper into the concepts. If we can get through the love of surface and into a deeper love of self, a love of our shared cultural history, a love and interconnectedness to all of nature…then we save Narcissus from merely drowning and save ourselves from it as well. I, myself, and we, as a society, are constantly wrestling with getting beneath the surface level,” he attests.
Overall, he describes performance art as “one of the most challenging, elusive, ephemeral, intangible, hard to monetize, and easy to disrespect art forms out there,” and says he has a love/hate relationship with the art form. Nevertheless, he asserts that “There is nothing else that gives me a thrill like the process of creating and the risky adrenaline of performing live. Right now, I am digging the idea of creating site-specific performances, especially performances that cater to a gallery setting and its particular exhibition.” This interest began with a solo performance called “Twinkle” for Radovanovic’s exhibition Prayer for Travelers last year.
Jenn is committed to sharing interesting elements and discoveries from the research he uses to create a performance. “There is a magic in the process of figuring out how to design a work from beginning to end, and how the seed of an idea takes a wild and winding journey to the final version. But the end-result reveals some of that adventure.”
Jenn hopes readers will see his work live, because video documentation of a performance can “flatten a living, breathing, moving art form. It’s partly why Vojislav and I created LA Art Documents, because having good documentation for art is important. I really love what I do and I love passing along the love.”
And it shows.