Jessie Mann is a Virginia-based writer and artist. Her artwork has been exhibited in galleries such as Zone Chelsea (New York), The Reynolds Gallery (Richmond, VA), as well as Nelson Fine Arts (Lexington, VA), and XYZ (Blacksburg, VA). Her writing has appeared in Aperture and Shots magazine. Jessie is also one of the best known models and muses of our generation, known for her collaboration with her mother, the photographer Sally Mann, and photographer Len Prince. (The collaboration with Prince is represented by Danziger Projects.) Jessie is a graduate of Washington & Lee University.
Wayne: Photographer Walker Evans originally wanted to be a writer; Zola was an avid photographer, though obviously, we best know him as a writer. Why is it difficult to be great as both a writer and a visual artist? Why do you have aspirations to be both?
Jessie: I don’t think it is particularly ‘hard’ to be a great writer and visual artist, but it is hard to be recognized for doing both. The public needs to be able to conceive of its public figures in discrete categories. Furthermore, I think there is a prejudicial need for creative energy to be in discrete quanta. The romantic notions we have of creation and the creative individual are such that a painter is a painter, and was born to be a painter, and therefore how could they also be able to write or perform? There is a sense that being an artist is like being a chess savant, it is an inexplicable and slightly alienating skill, one which does not arise out of the normal psychological makeup of an individual but rather is something akin to psychic ability; that it comes from somewhere else, from outside of the mind. In that way it is seen as an assignment, rather than a choice of expression. Therefore to attempt to express oneself in a variety of media challenges both people’s ability to hold the artist and their form of expression neatly in a category but also their conceptions of artistic creativity itself. I do not have aspirations to do both, I just do both. I have found that I have no choice in my expression. It pours out of me like water over falls, I just try to find the nearest bucket, when one overflows, or is full already, I find another. It is necessity, not planned intention.
Wayne: In the past, there was much less of a line between visual art and text: the illuminated manuscripts of medieval times, notably – Asian calligraphy also. Why do you think text and art have diverged so much? Why do we sometimes see text in your paintings? You have credited Cy Twombly for influencing you; how so? Besides Twombly , what other literary references do we see in your paintings?
Jessie: I think it might have started, like so many other things, with the printing press. Maybe, when the application of words to paper became automated and in a way institutional, the process no longer required the physical act of writing and it became separated from our direct creativity. Furthermore, I think that the separation has been part of the abovementioned need to put artistic expression, a messy and unorganized concept, into neat boxes. Therefore words were words and not a visual experience, visual art became more itself, and so became both more exclusive but also more self aware and self consciously developed. In that way it was a good thing, I don’t know if we could have had artists like Flavin who deal with the visual experience in such an isolated way had we not isolated the visual experience. The drawbacks to this phenomenon are now just an opportunity to reunite and reexamine.
Twombly influenced me in two main ways, the first being that he is a family friend, and so he was the first successful painter I was able to watch and study on a personal level. He taught me about what a painter does, how they live and what the personal consequences of such a lifestyle are. Secondly his work, I think, is the first to have self consciously included consciousness. It is as if he has applied, like a glaze to the surface of a painting, thought. That is revolutionary and, given my background in psychology, it is very appealing to me. The study of consciousness is an exploding field, and he predicted that with his work. For the first time we are scientifically studying consciousness itself, and it seems appropriate that our art should reflect that direct stare. I bring everything that I read to my work, and am often inspired to paint by what I am reading, for example I read Heidegger’s Introduction to Metaphysics when I first moved into this house, and then began a series about the concept of Dasein, often incorporating his words into my paintings, as if I could, like Twombly, both present the image and to some extent that thought which provoked it. Which is an interesting synthesis: it asserts a connection between thought and image, or even the primacy of thought over image or maybe vice versa, that’s a whole other matter I am not going to get into. Given that my paintings also deal with landscapes, it is a way to remind people that the image is not a representation of the world out there, but a representation of my digestion and perception of the world out there, sort of perception meets consciousness.
Wayne: You have said before that you live with “just me and my books.” What kind of reading habits do you have? Why is literature so important to you? Can you talk about your favorite authors? Who are your biggest influences? What are your writing ambitions, and in which forms are you working most heavily?
Jessie: This is a very full question. I live, technically, with my dog, Noble Mann, and my cats, Lilly, Pitch, and Alia. What I meant by that statement, is that I live 20 minutes from the nearest store and work at the greenhouses across the river from my house, so the life I have chosen for myself is a very isolated one. That choice was made with a desire to read in mind. I have my painting studio upstairs, but no T.V and the slowest possible internet connection, so when I am not painting or working, I am reading. My life goals include a massive consumption of knowledge, and that takes dedication, one has to just make the time and space to read and think. I have always felt that everything you could ever need to know is in the books already written, all one has to do is just find it, anything you might need to know- it is out there. That is one of my comforting delusions.
Each winter I try to read one major work of fiction and one major work of non-fiction. So my first winter here, I read The Brothers Karamazov and the works of Heidegger. Now I am trying to read one volume of Remembrance of Things Past each winter (I am finishing up Within a Budding Grove now), and this winter I got half way through Ken Wilber’s Sex, Ecology and Spirituality, but it’s a huge and dense book, so it will probably hold me over through the summer. In the summer I read minor works, but I tried to get as much in as I can, so for example last summer I read Henry James’s Daisy Miller, Susan Sontag’s Regarding the Pain of Others, Roland Barthes’s Camera Lucida, and Antonia Fraser’s Marie Antoinette. I also have a side bar of what I call work reading, and that is the books I have to read or reread for my writing about my art. So I read a selection of myths from Plato’s dialogues and Tarkovsky’s autobiography last month to prepare for a talk at the Art Institute of Chicago. Also every year I read Love in the Time of Cholera, Ada, Art and Physics (by Shlaine), and selections from Jung’s complete library. I also, and finally, read poetry. Among the poetic prose artists, my latest obsession is Elizabeth Smart.
Literature is so important to me, I suppose, because of my above-stated belief that within the world of knowledge and creation which exists in our collective book, so to speak, there is an absolute truth. Somehow, in literature is a grand allegory of humanity; we have created an abstract world, in which we have recreated ourselves, recreated our stories, and have even recreated our imaginations, by filling our pages not only with our unique creations and spaces, but also have recently imbued our characters with a generative consciousness of their own. And this can be my segue to the next two questions, who are my favorite authors and who are my biggest influences. My biggest influences and some of my favorite authors include Nabokov, Rushdie and Bellow. Rushdie I think is the best to illustrate the above point. His work self-consciously acknowledges its fictionhood, but asserts also the righteous domain of that sphere. His fictions are treated more like the embodiment of the collective unconscious than falsehoods. His worlds are influenced by our collective thought, they share archetypes and forms, like Jung’s mirror world (my greatest influence), and they seem to have some tenuous connection with and dependence on our consciousness. Or like Bellow’s characters who have that creepy feeling that they are characters, playing out archetypes, in some sort of collective story, but feel it just as subtly and mysteriously as we do. So literature most richly informs our mirror world, and is the closest to acknowledging its status as such. Photography though I think is close behind.
As to my writing ambitions, I am not even sure what they are yet. I am working very hard on my poetry right now, and hope to get a slim volume together soon. I suppose my greatest writing ambition would be to write one major work of fiction and one major work of non-fiction. I know what I want to write about and I have rather substantial notes and outlines, but I have to say I am a bit afraid of how much of myself I have to put into my writing, and so I am taking it slow. I consider my writing a very long-term project, and besides I have so much more I need to read first.
Wayne: I remember reading that you made a conscious decision not to study the visual arts as heavily as you could have. Why is that?
Jessie: There were a few reasons, the first is that going on the advice of Cy, my mother enabled me to learn how to paint but would not let me take lessons. I had a painting studio by middle school, and apprenticed with a few artists, but the goal was to make me teach myself, and never dilute my style. The second is that I also felt that I should teach myself what I could, and study what I couldn’t teach myself, so I focused heavily on the sciences in school. On my own, through reading and study, I taught myself art and art theory. Of course my family exposed me to a lot of art as it was, so it would make sense that I study something else in school.
Wayne: You have been a model and a muse for various artists throughout your life. How has that influenced your own thoughts on the relationship between artist and subject? How much is collaboration? How much is confrontation?
Jessie: It has certainly focused my thoughts on the relationship between the subject and the artist, but more than that it has brought me most fully to an examination of the role of the subject period. It has been through my experiences as a model/muse that I have been able to look upon directly what is exchanged between the artist and the subject but also, what is exchanged between the subject and the art, and the subject and the collective unconscious. I find that none of it is really confrontation, because we are always both, whoever it is, reaching for the same goal, and that is a beautiful image. Anytime there is a difference of opinion it is somehow worked out in the process, and sometimes determined by the process. One time, Len and I disagreed about a picture, and we took it two ways, only one came out due to a freak error, and it was a great picture. What really inspired me to do this project is two-fold. The interest in the model/muse-artist relationship came secondarily. The first fork of my motivation was my experience growing up, not as my mother’s model, but as a public character and the subject of mass speculation. The second was Jung. This should actually sum up the interview as your next question is about my interest in Jung and my study of psychology in college.
When the flap about my mother’s work occurred what shocked me most was that the public rarely thought to assume that we might have really enjoyed make art with our mother. This interesting social phenomenon led me to study the ways we conceive of the subject in art. This led me to consider the artist model relationship, and also to an awareness of an interesting assumption of exploitation. It is our fallback position when considering the individual turned character to assume some sort of tragedy or even some sort of danger to the spirit. Marilyn Monroe offers the best and most mass-scale example of this phenomenon. I think that this paradigm is shifting and as usual the first signs of this shift are showing in art. Starting with Warhol there was this idea that the individual could make this transition themselves, could make characters of themselves, or in literature, could make their characters self-aware of the fact that they are characters. In this facet of post-modernity I found a wonderful opportunity to use my life experience to finish the post-modern sentence. After Warhol, Sherman took it a step farther by not turning herself into a character, an art icon, but to turn abstract characters and archetypes into selves. With her movie stills she shined the spotlight on the abstracted anima, and by applying herself to the character, like the voice of the author in the character’s mind, she gives her, the ‘girl’, the anima, a moment of consciousness. And this is where Jung comes in.
I started reading Jung in sixth grade and haven’t quit. I think that his theories are some of the most influential of the decade and also some of the least fully digested. In his writing he was very specific, the collective unconscious was not a personal system of symbols, nor even a collection of thoughts and stories, but was rather a pre-existing system of symbols and mythic forms to which he pointedly and repeatedly assigns a form of consciousness- he refers to it as the psychic substrate of consciousness, which itself is conscious and generative. If that is not the best explanation for the allegory which is literature and artistic creation, then I don’t know what is. But given his definition of the collective unconscious, the role of the subject becomes much more interesting, and one begins to wonder what the effect of immersion in our collective thought and story telling does. What does the muse give of herself, what is being taken, if something is being taken at all, and then where does it go? I began to ask myself, what does it really mean, ontologically, when a person says, you don’t know me, but I know you, as happens to me often given that I am a character in people’s minds as much as I am myself. Recently a book came out that is said to be loosely based on the imagined lives of one of Sally Mann’s daughters. What I intend to do with the pictures Len and I have created, is take the theoretical implications of that freeing and abstracting of character, which is implied when novels like that are written, and add that to the sum of the artistic examination of the character and its interaction with the anima, and see if I can be the conscious anima first, the self-conscious narrator second. And so you see, my position has allowed me theoretically to explore that mirror world, from the mirror at the interface. I can look back as a character, as the subject (exploited, self-possessed, fictional, historical, or referential) – with this new post modern awareness of subjectivity, and I can begin to answer the question, what does this immersion do: it makes one believe in the metaphysical significance of our imaginings.