Janna Ireland: Telling Stories of Recognition
Written by Genie Davis
Artist Janna Ireland is a powerful creator. After first viewing her work in the Binder of Women show earlier this year at Track 16 gallery in the Bendix Building, looking at her current work now and discussing it offers an insight into her artistic energy.
Her works resonate: lovely, lush images that are impactful with recognition.
According to Ireland, “I think that the most important stories to tell right now are those of and by people who have historically been cast aside, ignored, or actively harmed by those in power. Those stories have always been important, but haven’t always been listened to in the way they’re being listened to now. Even today, there are plenty of people who refuse to hear.”
Her lustrous photographs are both graceful and evocative. “Most of the stories I tell in my work are about Black people, because of my desire to see us recognized and protected, and most of the stories I tell are about women, for the same reasons.”
Ireland’s work is constantly evolving. “There are some parts of my practice, like my self-portraits, that I’ve done consistently for a long time, but each project is more mature than the last. At least, I hope that’s the case–I never want to stop growing. There is always room for my practice to expand; I never imagined myself photographing architecture, for example, and now that’s a big part of what I do.”
Recently, some of her work was acquired by LACMA. The acquisition came about through a collector of Ireland’s work, who connected her with a LACMA curator. A studio visit with the curator and one of her colleagues followed, but after that, Ireland heard nothing more.
“The following year, I was invited to speak at a LACMA conference about historic preservation, and more people from the museum saw my work. Meanwhile, one of the curators from that first studio visit was back in touch. I had a second studio visit, this time with one curator from the Photography department and one curator from Decorative Arts and Design. I ended up getting a few of my portraits in the Photography collection last year, and not really telling anyone about it — I have a perverse instinct to keep good news a secret as long as possible,” Ireland attests.
But now the good news must be shared. “A big group of my architectural photographs is headed to the Decorative Arts and Design collection. I probably never would have announced that, but a curator posted about it on Instagram! It’s honestly kind of a relief that more of the people in my life know about it now.” She adds “The work I’ve been doing for the last 10 years is very much about my romance with Los Angeles. It feels pretty incredible to have it recognized here.”
As to Binder of Women, Ireland says she hasn’t been able to participate as much in the project as she wants to, but had been trying to find a way to contribute further.
“A few weeks into the shutdown, it occurred to me that with so many shows suddenly moving online, or being conceived as online shows from the beginning, there was no reason we couldn’t start doing shows of our own on the Binder site. I immediately sent off an email proposing the idea to the group, before I could lose my nerve. They were on board! And they were so supportive as I was putting the show together.”
According to the artist, “I started collecting images of members’ work, and then George Floyd was murdered. It was important to all of us to have sales from the show benefit someone other than ourselves and the group. Originally, we each picked our own organizations, but Yasmine Diaz made a good case for choosing one organization, and the rest of us agreed. The other members thought that as the curator, I should choose, and I picked Morris Home, a residential recovery program that serves the trans community in Philadelphia.”
She explains that transwoman Dominique “Rem’mie” Fells was murdered in Philly about two weeks after George Floyd’s death. “I grew up in Philly, near where Morris Home is located now, and have been following the news surrounding Fells. Trans people–especially Black trans people–are among the most vulnerable members of our society.”
Ireland’s initial involvement in Binder of Women came about through a friend from graduate school, artist Erin Morrison, an early member of the group. “Through following Erin’s work, I learned about the group, and thought all the artists involved and the projects they were doing looked amazing. I met several members at a little gathering Erin hosted to look at some art history slides she’d recently acquired, and a few months later I was invited to join the group.”
Ireland’s work is filled with emotional components and a deep, heartfelt energy that seems best described as “life force” to the viewer. “The energy you’re describing, at least when it comes to my portraits, may come from the gaze–who is looking where, and why, within the frame. In a lot of the pictures I’ve taken of myself, I’m looking right at the camera, which means that, to whoever is looking at the photograph, it seems as though I’m making eye contact,” she says. This connection is a visceral experience for viewers. “Years ago, as a younger woman, I began doing this because it felt really important to represent myself as a figure who had power and agency in my photographs.” Viewers of her self-portraits are often surprised meeting her for the first time, she notes. Part of that is surprised at her height – a diminutive 5’2”. “Somehow, I photograph myself to look larger than I actually am. I don’t know quite how that works.
As to her most current works, she relates that “In more recent pictures of me with my family, my subjects are often looking away, sometimes at each other, sometimes at something out of view. Instead of traveling outwards, the energy generated by the gaze is bouncing around inside of the frame. Those decisions are always made very carefully. I also try to use color, clothing, gesture, and props in a way that is very deliberate.”
While photography is her primary medium, Ireland has also created what she calls “little ready-made sculptures” for the last several years. “I’m hoping to find some time to work on more of those. They combine items that are easy to obtain — often glass objects like cake plates, bell jars, and candlesticks — with photographs. I’ve been writing recently, too. As a teenager in Philly, I was a writing major at an arts high school, but when I went to college I stopped writing in a serious way to focus on photography. I don’t really think of myself as a writer anymore, but I still love writing, and it still feels good. Now I think of the writing as an extension of my work as a visual artist, not something that stands on its own.”
Ireland’s first book, Regarding Paul R. Williams, is coming out on September 15th. “I’ve been taking pictures of buildings designed by Paul R. Williams for four years. Williams was the first Black architect to be inducted into the American Institute of Architects. He’s something of an LA legend, but criminally under-recognized elsewhere, though that’s beginning to change.” Her next big project: getting the book out into the world. “I’ve already been invited to give a few talks–I guess I’ll be going on a Zoom book tour this fall.”
The book will undoubtedly be another example of Ireland creating a compelling connection with viewers: one that tells a passionate, yet nuanced, story.