Facebook as an Artistic Platform: An Interview With Jennifer Reeves

05/03/2013 11:35 am ET Updated Jul 01, 2013

Photos courtesy of the artist.

About eleven years ago I met J.W. Reeves (Man or woman? No clue) in the comments section of a lively but now defunct publication, New York Arts Magazine. I was bowled over by her lapidary wit, her cultural fluency, and, mostly, by her ornery, spot-on insights.

Only later did I learn that she was not only a she but an artist. And what an artist! An essay I've been carrying around in my head begins with the observation that her work at that time combined the levitating bands of words you find in Renaissance Annunciation paintings (Think levitating fortunes in Chinese cookies) with the puckish, Waiting for Godot figuration of early 20th century circus posters. I believe she called this her Transcended Slug phase. Her work was as cheeky as her comments and, little surprise, her criticism and rumination pieces felt like fight scenes from "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon."

I marveled at how her paintings (and, later, her sculpture cum photographs) perfectly mirrored her words, her character, and her personality. There were no fuzzy, inchoate spaces between what she thought and what she painted, wrote or said; no posturing, no irony, and not a lick of insincerity. Were the dramatic arc of her output a movie, Mozart ("Eine Kleine Nachtmusik") would provide the soundtrack and Victor Hugo ("Jesus wept, Voltaire smiled") the script.

And now she's making art on Facebook. Not to promote or otherwise document herself, not to float pre-exhibition trial balloons, not to elicit comments or feedback. Instead she seeks to explore and expand the possibilities that the social networking platform provides. And so...

JS: If, as you say, "Facebook is a medium for making art," then what are its formal elements and how do you compose them? Similarly, how do you define its pictorial space and its audience? Is the space more like a canvas, a stage, a movie set, or a forum? What are the obvious artistic benefits of Facebook-as-medium?

JWR: Facebook sucks as a medium. I have to live with the company's limited sense of pictorial space, a pictorial space that places mass needs over unique potential. On the other hand, plenty of artists have had to work around a client's constraints: Michelangelo and the Pope, for instance. It's an interesting challenge to take on. I find that constraints are like catapults; they hurl you into avenues you hadn't thought of before.

JS: What led you to first post the images and texts? At the beginning, did it occur to you that you were tapping into something with limitless potential for art making? If yes, can you describe that potential? What have you learned along the way?

JWR: My first posts did not have images. I WAS CONTRARY AND USED A LOT OF CAPS. My motivations were to get attention. I'm petite and feminine in person so I thought I had to yell. Maybe I did. I'm not sure. Whatever the case, I began to finesse my sarcasm or drop it altogether. I learned it's not bad to be an ambitious woman. Getting attention is fine, depending on the kind of attention one gets. I mean, if people are offended they can't hear you.

JS: There seem to be at least three things going on here. First you have the narratives. They feel spontaneous, off-the-cuff; they have that staccato tone of hard-boiled detective stories. The entries are profound and personal, discussing things like custody battles, childhood trauma, dating, the art world, and inspiration. Where do they come from? Are they autobiographical? Did they pre-exist, perhaps in a journal, or do you write them as you go along? Do they reflect or otherwise continue your prior art critical writing?

JWR: The narratives come from suffering. Yes, they are based on my life and the people I've known. But I allow myself the freedom to extrapolate; the narratives are riffs. I'm not interested in memoir. I'm interested in parable. I want to identify the point at which suffering blooms into wisdom. I want to step on the stones to cross the stream, not wade around in a stagnant pool feeding leaches.

I usually write the posts in the morning. I get an idea and go with it, tweaking it later. Hopefully, I wait a day to let the writing settle. I may or may not have an image in mind. I have an archive of over 700 and counting from which to choose. In fact, the images are the journals. They are paintings created years prior to the written material but not always. There are no hard fast rules, here. The space I'm working in is enough of a constraint to deal with.

The critical writings feed into the current writing the same way old paintings feed into new ones; the ideas circle around and bite their own tails. I say the same thing over and over from different angles trying to get a grip on the ideas.

JS: Second you have the images that relate, even tangentially, to the texts. Displayed with the narratives, they feel temporary, like a Post-It on a work-in-progress. How do you connect the image to the text? Do you suggest that the process of life echoes the process of painting? How does Facebook mediate the creation and the experience of the work?

JWR: Intuition brings the text and the images together. The Facebook wall feels like an open sketchbook with an amphitheater. It makes creating less lonely and more infuriating. John Cage said, "When you start working, everybody is in your studio- the past, your friends, enemies, the art world, and above all, your own ideas- all are there. But as you continue painting, they start leaving, one by one, and you are left completely alone. Then, if you are lucky, even you leave." I still can have this sensation in my studio but not on Facebook. There's a danger of wanting feedback so much that one's autonomy is undermined. On the other hand, the company is refreshing. If someone makes an interesting comment you can feed off of it.

Do I suggest that the process of life echoes the process of painting (creating)? Yes but that's a rather sterile way of putting it!

JS: Third you have the books that you publish, independent in at least respect, from the Facebook work. You take the narratives, couple them to other, pre-existing work, photograph them, and create the book. Why don't you simply use the original Facebook images? In form, content, and vision, how are the Facebook pieces different from the published ones?

JWR: So far, I haven't liked the way the paintings look in print and it's too difficult to control the color. Their physicality is dependent on texture so it's better to see them in person. With the photographs of sculptures the physicality is not as much of an issue. The books are objects whereas Facebook is more ethereal. It's a conundrum since my painting is all about the texture but my Facebook work cannot be physically tactile. I try to be prickly in other ways--with the words I choose, by a mental touch--the same mental touch used in the paintings. It's not difficult to understand that a textured life can be reflected in a textured painting or book or online experience. That being said, I believe it is necessary to be able to demonstrate texture in the physical as a sort of proof of knowledge.

JS: So, in other words, for both the Facebook posts and the published book, the narratives and the images had individual existences until their moment of linkage. Does that suggest a fortuitous (and Surrealist) element in your work, the bringing together of previously unrelated realities to form a new one?

JWR: Yes, because the effect is psychological but I'm looking for reality not dreams. I'm trying to break through the mirage that would keep me down. These things, these seemingly unrelated realities, were always connected. I bring the narratives and the images together because they relate. They relate despite myself. Their comradeship surprises me. It's an upside down, inside out surrealism linked by similarities of texture. It's an absurd process.

JS: Speaking of process, you were impressed by a Matisse show at the Met, in particular, by the process shots that accompanied particular pieces. Why were you impressed and what, if any, connection is there between this in-process documentation of a finished work and this Facebook project?

JWR: Matisse slowly abstracted the figure. I am slowly figurize-ing the abstraction. I'm giving abstraction the power of representation--arms, a place to live, and a detailed particular life. Abstraction is taking on the power of representation, a power it has always had because, as I see it, spiritual sense, or inspiration, is real.

The art of Matisse wasn't, at first, understood. People thought it was dashed off without a thought. I would wager that this bothered him. His solution was to not just show the final work but to also show photographs of the painting as it progressed. He hung the painting along with the photographs so people could understand his creative thought process, in his case, the simple complexity of it. Matisse understood that, as Hans Hoffman once said, "Simplicity is pureness not poorness."

Thanks to photography the mind of Matisse creating could be recorded. Thanks to the Facebook format so can any artist's and with the additional value (or danger) of feedback. To me where the art really exists is in the place where it moves from one point to another, in the artist's mind. It's fascinating to watch the jumps and leaps and backtracking and contemplate the whys. Why is art created? What strange phenomenon is this? Why is there life there?

JS: Is there any cross-fertilization here? Sequentially or perhaps at a future date, do the paintings, the photographs, and the narratives influence one another? Do you conceive of them as steps along the same journey?

JWR: Yes, but I can't see where it will lead until I go there. I trust it will be worthwhile even if the final result is failure. Hopefully, someone else can pick up the remnants and make a Sistine Chapel out of it.

JS: These posts are very theatrical. They remind me of Joseph Cornell boxes and David Hockney stage sets. And, in fact, you used to act in high school. Is there some parallel here, some conflation of text, set design, and, one way or another, figuration? If so, do you see yourself more as a playwright, set designer, protagonist, or director?

JWR: What is it that makes art art? An artist can put a mark down on the page and that mark becomes something beyond itself. It is art. The same artist can put a mark down on the page and it's just a mark on a page. It is not art. What's the difference? How does that happen?

When I was a kid I was in the middle of a custody battle between my grandmother and my father. When the judge asked me whom I wanted to live with, I didn't tell him the truth because I was afraid my father would think I didn't love him. I don't see this as a failure but it was a noteworthy mistake that ended up being a pivotal turning point in my life and, therefore, my development as an artist.

I'll tell you why.... In college, I was in an improvisation class. I didn't know how actors could get themselves to cry. I tried to think sad things but it didn't work for me. During my improvisation something unexpected happened. I flashed back to the custody battle when I lied to the judge to protect my dad's feelings. In my mind, my improv partner was my father. I think maybe my scene partner asked me what I wanted to do. I immediately knew what I wanted to say but I hesitated. I felt my answer was going to determine the rest of my life, that it was a turning point. It seemed like a billion years passed in mere seconds. I felt like I was about to jump in a dark hole without knowing how deep it was. For many years I couldn't remember what I had said, I just remembered the emotion that gushed out of me upon saying it. I was amazed at how naturally the emotion expressed itself. It was an experience of feeling the difference between acting and being. It thrilled me. The next improv, though, was terrible. I felt so exposed I put my back to the audience the entire time. Today, I remember what it was I had said that made me so embarrassed in front of my college classmates and had brought on the ensuing tears. I had said, "I want to live with my grandmother."

The following summer I went to Vermont Studio School. New York artist, Archie Rand, was teaching a figure drawing class. He was trying to tell us something. He was agitated, he paced around the room talking about the difference between Van Gogh's early drawings and late drawings; how his early drawings were painfully awkward descriptions of nature. The later drawings had authority, his mark making had changed, a blade of grass WAS the grass. I puzzled over what he was trying to tell us. The model changed poses every thirty seconds. Then, it clicked. What Rand was talking about was the same thing I had learned in the improvisation class, the difference between acting and being. I changed tact. I began to feel the model and not merely draw her. The moment my thought changed, the drawings changed. Archie came around and pointed at my drawing. He said, "That's it. That's what I'm talking about!" It was a valuable lesson that I must continuously relearn.

JS: Can or will you take these Facebook posts in some other direction? At this point, do you see any potential dead ends? Do you see this - or whatever-comes-after-Facebook - as a viable artistic medium? Do you know of any other artists who inhabit and create in the same virtual space that you do?

JWR: Yes, I am not the only artist creating in virtual space. There are many others. The artists I know who are consistently utilizing Facebook as a medium for pushing the limits of creating are Judy Rifka, Oliver Wasow, John Monteith, P. Elaine Sharpe and NY Magazine art critic, Jerry Saltz, who brings criticism into the realm of the studio, not the artist's studio but the critic's.

Just yesterday I was talking with my friend Todd Masuda, an artist and lawyer. We were talking about how a sound is made. I asked him when he thought the sound happens? He said he thinks it happens before the artist touches instrument. He said, "There's a non-technical transformation that's more important than the technical one." To me, that means, art is dependent on an internal transformation or vitality without which it is but the dead letter. If this is true then an artist can use the new medium of Facebook to transform dead letters. It doesn't matter what medium an artist uses; all that matters is the way the medium is used. To me, that is spirituality, that is wisdom and a thoroughly viable artistic avenue.

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