Artist Janine Brown Invites You to Describe Who You Are
Gallery 825, Los Angeles
THrough February 18, 2022
Written by Genie Davis
The Holiness in the Ordinary, at Gallery 825 through February 18th, examines both the contradictory elements of identity and the shared commonalities between diverse, unique people. Janine Brown’s video portraits start with a self-curated list that completes the sentence “I am…”
The result is both fascinating and inspiring, a video presentation that is connected to an accompanying, onsite book, in which viewers can write their own “I am” statements and share them on social media or create their own videos of their words.
Brown says of the project on view at LAAA, “The thing that I think people will find fascinating is that all of the statements have come from the participants – I have not coached them on what to say. I will at the end of their script ask if there is anything else that they can think of and give them categories – but I try to stay very general, so that they each have agency over their statements. I find it fascinating that many of them say similar things, which gets back to [the idea that] we are all just humans after all.” She notes that additionally, she asks the participants to use their first language. Brown provides the translations or uses Google Translate for the English subtitles.
The inspiration for the project comes in part from spending 10 years on The Wallflower Project, which the artist describes as having “examined the social stigma of being a wallflower through pinhole photography, mixed media, installation and video.” The work was presented in a solo show at Gallery 825 in 2016. Before and during the pandemic, she began researching a new body of work related to fashion and identity, as well as going back to school for her MFA in June 2021. She began exploring the idea of a T-shirt as a communication tool as part of her summer program.
“I was thinking about how one phrase on a shirt might say something about your identity, but it really didn’t encompass someone’s entire identity. So, I used myself as the first ‘I am’ video, intending to project it on a T-shirt,” she says. That was the genesis of this project.
“From there, I became interested in other people’s ‘I am’ statements, and started to ask friends to come up with their own scripts of 40-100 ‘I am’ statements and brought them into my studio to film them saying their statements. As I filmed people, I found that many of them would concentrate on similar aspects of their identity and there began to be a crossover of common denominators.”
To find a more diverse group of people, Brown asked the Director of The Norwalk Art Space in Norwalk, Conn. if he would do the project. He participated and put some of the video portraits in a project space at the Art Center where people could view them and then sign up to participate. “From August – November, I had filmed 18 people. I decided to edit the statements together to tell a story – the participants spoke about personality traits, hobbies, political opinions, and more – telling a story of humanity,” she explains.
As part of her ongoing research, Brown also researched the words “I am.” According to the artist, “Those two words are found in many religions to mean ‘God,’ or the divine, which is why I titled the show, The Holiness in the Ordinary, the extraordinary things that are found in ordinary people that you meet. That was also the inspiration for ‘The Book of I AM,’ an interactive book where visitors to the gallery can add their own ‘I Am’ statements.”
While Brown had to stop filming to edit the 3-channel video used in the show, she currently has over 25 people signed to participate, and she will soon be back to filming again. “I intend to add to the individual portraits with the hopes of creating more installations and getting an even more diverse group of people. As I show the pieces from this project, I hope to create different chapters for ‘The Book of I AM.’ The first will be Los Angeles, and we will see were the next one will be.”
The thread that runs through all of Brown’s work is an exploration of identity and perception. The Wallflower Project explored the social stigma of being a wallflower; her Social Distortions explores our curated, social media focused world, using collaged portraits.
This thread and the idea of common denominators in humanity both came together as a direct response to the current global situation, Brown attests. “With all the political and social unrest, it seems like we, [as] human beings, need to start looking at what makes us similar and start to find common ground for the good of mankind, rather than continue to point out our differences and argue about them. We should celebrate and respect our differences and realize that we are all human. As humans, we need to help each other in whatever way that we can.”
Brown plans to continue working on the project. “I have started to explore the idea in other mediums using text, sound, and embroidery to express the idea of self and it’s complexities. I also am trying to find ways to incorporate my interest in fashion. I am a former fashion and textile designer.”
Brown will be participating in an artist talk on Zoom with exhibition curator Terri C. Smith, at 2 p.m. on February 6th.