|geometric forms, dappled light|
What follows is a conversation with Jennifer Reese about her photo essay inspired by a trip to Santa Clarita, California. We spoke to her at her home in Brooklyn.
Q: Jennifer, tell us about your recent trip to Southern California to visit your son, Owen, at college. That’s an extraordinarily evocative photograph of the front of his school (see above), but I’ve heard you found the surrounding scenery gorgeous and inspiring.
A: Yes indeed. It was both familiar and exotic. I’m a native Californian and after six months in Brooklyn I was bowled over by the grandeur of the rugged green mountains, the palms, the orange trees. I saw it all anew. Just staggeringly beautiful, the American West.
Q: How did you find your son?
A: I found him, as I did the landscape, both familiar and exotic. I was sitting in the lobby of the La Quinta waiting for him one evening and I looked up and thought, who is that tall, handsome, self-assured young man with platinum blond hair walking swiftly towards me?
Q: What a sweet moment. I hope you told Owen you thought he looked handsome.
A: Of course. I told him he looked very handsome despite the absolutely ridiculous, embarrassing blond hair.
Q: I’m not sure . . .
A: It’s an abomination.
Q: As long as he’s happy.
A: I’ve never seen him happier.
Q: Is it true that the swimming pool at CalArts is clothing optional? That even classes are clothing optional?
A: Why does everyone keep asking me about that? Yes. It’s true. CalArts is not a stuffy place. I was just walking around one day and almost tripped over a girl who was rolling across a vast, empty atrium for no apparent reason.
Q: Tell us about this next photo. It’s very subtle.
A: I’m so glad you like it! I was idly drinking my coffee at the La Quinta one morning when I decided to try to capture the atmosphere of the American chain-hotel breakfast room. It’s always the same, whether you’re in Anchorage or Austin. Awful food served in a space with the ambiance of a Jiffy Lube waiting room. No one seems to think this is as bizarre as I do. I feel this is a rich untapped subject for the American artist.
A: The first picture of the La Quinta breakfast didn’t include the TV tuned to political news, so I took another. I find this one more powerful.
Q: It is a stronger shot.
A: Right? I was going to post it on Instagram but I couldn’t think of a clever caption. I guess I’m really just a visual thinker.
A: I recently read a quote, attributed to John Cage: “If something is boring after two minutes, try it for four. If still boring, then eight. Then sixteen. Then thirty-two. Eventually one discovers that it is not boring at all.” I spent a lot of time each morning drinking coffee and studying the breakfast room which was, I admit, visually boring -- at first.
But Cage was so right! It’s not boring when you really look. The last day of the trip a very old, scowling woman was pushing her walker — on which she’d balanced a styrofoam bowl of Froot Loops and milk — around and around the room. She was heading somewhere with great purpose and yet she never seemed to get there. At one point a middle-aged woman barked: “Sit down, Mom!” But Mom continued to circle. I could not look at the old woman’s ancient, demented face without experiencing a deluge of thoughts and feelings. How could anyone find that scene boring?
Q: Not boring, just depressing as hell. Jesus. Let’s move on. This is a masterpiece.
A: Wait, I can’t read you. Are you being sarcastic?
Q: Why would you think that?
A: Good. Whew. I’m so insecure. Where were we? Oh yes. I’ve found that Santa Clarita has become less boring and less depressing the longer I’ve looked at it. On my first visit, I thought that there was nothing here but bland adobe-colored malls, bland adobe-colored housing developments, a lot of chain restaurants, and Magic Mountain. This is my fourth trip and I find more to interest me every time.
Q: How does this photograph illustrate that? What am I missing?
A: Glance at that picture quickly and you see only the Payless. Look longer and you see a marvelous used bookstore called the Open Book.
Q: I see the Payless, but. . . let me find my glasses.
A: I spent ninety minutes at the Open Book and bought a copy of Inside of a Dog by Alexandra Horowitz for $2.95. It’s an incredible shop. Huge selection of books and low prices. I can’t wait to return.
Q: Inside of a Dog is superb. I love dogs.
A: Me too.
Q: I have a pit mix named Gracie.
A: How funny, I do too.
Q: So what’s the next picture you want to talk about?
A: Next picture?
Q: Yes. We’re going through your photo essay from the trip to California.
A: These are the only photographs I took.
Q: WTF, Jennifer?
A: Excuse me?
Q: You call this a photo essay?
A: I call it a short photo essay.
Q: Not a single picture of blond Owen or his lovely friends drinking Shirley Temples at the Italian restaurant? No shots of an orange tree or a palm tree or the fried bananas and coconut ice cream at Jitlada Thai? No pictures of the girl rolling across the art school atrium? Of the homemade Ring Ding at Olive & Thyme? The clothing-optional pool?
A: I’m going to have to ask you to calm down.
Q: No picture of your cute father who joined you on this trip? No shots of the towering eucalyptus on the CalArts campus? Of the found-object art in the gallery?
A: Why is everyone so hung up on the beautiful and interesting? Beauty is trite. Interesting is obvious. I prefer to focus on the utterly drab.
Q: That must be the secret to your success as an artist.
A: I’ve often thought it must be.