Learning how art works: Jessica Mensch

James Irwin totally cheats on his writing assignment and asks a friend for help reviewing Jessica Mensch’s new mixed-media show, “The Fuzz.”

“What’s Your Name?” by Jessica Mensch

I took my first walk around the Visual Voice Gallery where Jessica Mensch’s solo exhibit The Fuzz is now showing, standing just me and each painting for a moment like a toddler in a phone booth trying to figure out how it works. Then I had some wine, which was delicious. That’s how art shows generally go for me — a curious innocent.

Mensch’s paintings have immediate appeal, and because I was faced with the knowledge that I would have to say something about them to the world after, this time I wanted to find a language to connect with the work more dynamically. So, rather than banging and mashing all the buttons hoping to fumble upon the connection I was looking for, I asked a friend who had completed grad school in painting and drawing. Genius!

I highly recommend this tactic, as I gained hints to the intricate layers of Mensch’s work. My friend, the anonymous and heroically knowledgeable painter, told me in any good painting he looks for the tension. Where are the poles, and how is the friction between them playing out?

In Mensch’s installation and exhibit at Gallery Visual Voice, some of the tensions are between the representational and abstract, between drawing and painting techniques, and surrounding what I suppose I’d call believable space. You’re looking at figures in a room, but the room is built partially of paper and artificially lit. Shapes and shadow are assembling to present believable beings and objects, but then suddenly the canvas appears, or a limb, flat and on top of, or tucked away behind, the image.

A key to understanding the origin of these tensions is the video work, also on display, from which the paintings are derived. The Fuzz is a video piece created by Mensch, starring some local music heroes. According to Mensch, it is “a picture of the underworld…where ideas are projected into space from bodiless minds.”

It’s a sort of ritual scenario in a subterranean demon disco, which Mensch says is, “set in a black and white paper rainforest, and follows four characters who converge at various times to tease out a narrative that eventually culminates in a love scene of complete abandon.”

As an aside, for a huge laugh check out Mensch’s previous comedic sci-fi video work with collaborator Emily Pelstring, Utah 1978, upon which two of the paintings in this show are based. Most of the remaining works are taken directly from stills in The Fuzz. Watching both videos is key to getting the whole story.

Mensch’s choice to paint from digital video stills is an attempt to tackle contemporary art’s shift in focus, ”from traditional media to installation and video art.” The drawn paper landscape of the video, with all its artificial light and digital colours, is then rendered with a combination of painting and drawing techniques.

It is also, for Mensch, a development away from her typically representational painting style. While she says that starting from video stills “felt at first to be an act of representational painting, this course of thought was soon undone by the very nature of what I was representing – namely the fantastical and surreal worlds of Utah 1978 and The Fuzz.”

Jessica Mensch has some serious painterly chops, a great sense of humour, and some highly engaging approaches to mixed-media artwork. I suggest you go down to the show, and tap someone on the shoulder who looks like they’d have some lucid thoughts to share. And if you happen to be one of those people, I recommend you go, then tap the shoulder of someone who looks like a toddler in a phone booth. It will improve their experience immeasurably. ■

Jessica Mensch’s THE FUZZ is on through Oct. 27, Visual Voice Gallery (372 Ste-Catherine W. (Belgo Building), #421)

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