August 2019 Artist in Residence: Jennifer Ray
Jennifer Ray is a Wichita-based artist and educator. She received her MFA in Photography from Columbia College and BA in Studio Art from Oberlin College.
Her work is in the collections of the Museum of Fine Arts Houston, the Museum of Contemporary Photography, the Museo del Barro, the Fundación Bienal Asunción, and the Kinsey Institute for Research in Sex, Gender, and Reproduction. It was selected for the 1st Asunción Biennial (Paraguay) and Bienal de Curitiba (Brazil), and has been exhibited at the RISD Museum of Art, the Chelsea Art Museum, the Museum of Contemporary Photography, Hyde Park Art Center, and Chicago Cultural Center, among other venues. Her work is included in the Collector's Guide to New Art Photography, published by Humble Arts Foundation. She’s received research grants from the Illinois Arts Council, Columbia College, the Chicago Office of Tourism and Culture, Oberlin College, and Wichita State University. She is currently Assistant Professor of Photo Media at Wichita State University.
Q&A with Jennifer Ray, interviewed by Noëlle Pouzar
In your photo series, Go Deep Into The Woods, you “locate and photograph sites in public parks where men meet for furtive sexual encounters.” Tell us more about your research process in documenting these secretive outings in public spaces.
Sometimes I just came across cruising parks, which is how I began the series, but as I got more serious about the project I used websites listing cruisy sites to find good spots all over the country. (I recommend squirt.org for anyone interested...great searchability!) I also occasionally got recommendations from friends who cruise.
Because I’m an outsider to that scene, I did a ton of research that informed the project, but which wasn’t exactly part of it. I talked to a lot of guys that cruise, read the relatively scant academic literature in sociology and queer studies, learned about related laws and history, and read fictional and autobiographical accounts of cruising (The Sexual Outlaw by John Rechy was game-changing). I wrote my master’s thesis on representations of cruising in art (by Evergon, Kohei Yoshiyuki, Paul Cadmus, and Minor White) and the frequent censorship thereof.
I think it’s pretty important to educate yourself about the things you make work about - especially if those things are outside your direct experience.
How does uncomfortability fit within your work?
If I have made a viewer feel uncomfortable, then I feel like I’ve done my job - it’s basically THE thing I try to do with most projects. Discomfort = growth, or at least a challenge. Much of my work asks the viewer to confront something they may find difficult or disturbing or gauche, whether that’s a suggestion of a particular sexual act or the evidence of violence.
I typically hint at narratives but rely on the viewer to complete them. For instance, in the Go Deep series, I have a photograph of a porn magazine that’s been partially frozen over in a pond. At exhibition size, everything is a bit abstracted, and the viewer has to work to make sense of what they’re seeing. I remember listening in on the conversation between two elderly women at a show (who didn’t know I was the artist) as they tried to decipher the image, and feeling very successful when one excitedly announced to the other, “I see it now! There’s two women here and one man in the middle!”
I try not to let the viewer off the hook by asking them to see themselves in what they might find distasteful.
Your most recent project, In Range, captures objects left at open shooting ranges, playing heavily on the notion of abandonment. How do you view this series in relation to pleasure and violence?
I think we all have the capacity for violence and destruction, which some of us choose to repress and others choose to indulge. If you think about toddlers, they all like to destroy things - throw food, knock down blocks, shove their younger sibling. Our inner toddler is still there. There’s a reason we like watching buildings be demolished, fireworks, and action movie explosions. Knowing that we can cause the destruction of something with the push of a button or pull of a trigger is an enormously powerful thing. The couple of times I’ve gone shooting as an adult, I’ve been so aware of the adrenaline rush and the urge to just blast away at everything.
Are there any new projects you’re working on and can you tell us about them?
I’m really excited about a project I’ve started in Cuba, looking at sites of terrorist attacks perpetrated or sponsored by the US, generally beginning after the revolution with the Bay of Pigs Invasion and continuing through the mid-90s under Clinton. Americans are typically taught to think of our foreign policy as being well-intentioned, if not downright benevolent. But to have any sort of understanding of our real place in the world, we have to acknowledge the unprovoked violence that we’ve used as a tool to manipulate many less powerful countries, usually under the guise of stamping out the “threat of communism”. There are hugely negative outcomes to these actions and the destabilizing ripple effect, some of which are still playing out now.
What will you be working on during your residency at LATITUDE?
I’ll be focusing on scanning with Latitude’s drum scanners. I only have access to flatbed scanners in the lab where I usually work, and I’m really looking forward to having better quality scans to print from. I shoot on large format (4x5 and 8x10) film, and I’m eager to maximize the clarity that can provide. I’ll also be taking the time to experiment with some of the more non-traditional printing substrates Latitude carries and consider print size and surface in a more conceptual way.
Where in Chicago do you go for inspiration?
MCA and MoCP never disappoint. I’m really looking forward to checking out the Laura Aguilar show at the National Museum of Mexican Art while I’m in town.
I’m also a huge fan of Marwen (art center for middle and high schoolers). I taught there for a couple of years and was really blown away by the students’ work, ideas, and conversation. When I’m back in town I’ll often stop by to check out the student work they have up and what’s going on in their classrooms.
What are you currently reading, watching, listening to?
I’m really into audiobooks for long drives (I live in Kansas; everywhere is a long drive). Recent favorites are the dystopian Parable of the Sower by Octavia Butler, Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad, and Garrett Graff’s nonfiction Raven Rock: The Story of the US Government’s Secret Plan to Save Itself - While the Rest of Us Die. All highly relevant to the moment, unfortunately.