First and foremost, Jennifer Ley is an artist. A Bloomfield resident and local realtor, she is involved in community events, she supports local organizations via promotion and advice, and she makes sure to attend and participate in local art projects and installations. Oh! And by the way, her art is on view through April 1st at the Museum of Modern Art in the Club 57 Exhibit.
1: How does art infuse your day-to-day life?
I’m one of those people who will travel to see a special exhibit or installation. My husband and I have collected on a small scale for a long time. We have a real affinity for art on the edges, large scale installations, Outsider art, indigenous crafts, or more traditional art. So “art” is always top of mind for me. When it comes to my own work, it’s evolved through so many different media. Right now I’m working with the imagery I made in the late 70’s. My dining room table is covered with photos, xeroxes, pastels, black light markers and cut-out lettering. At the very beginning of the internet I did a lot of online, hypertext coded work that used the web as a canvas. I’ve always managed to make art a part of my environment.
2: You recently gave an art talk at MoMA as part of the Club 57 exhibit. That must have been exhilarating.
It was surreal to see the event come up on MoMA’s website with my name and one of the works they’ve put into their permanent collection. Just those words “put into their permanent collection” is exhilarating, mind-boggling and humbling. Because the theme I dealt with then: how women can take back power when confronted with overt sexism and double standards, is still front and center in our national psyche, so there was a timeliness to the subject matter that makes the work extremely relevant. None of us in the late 70’s thought we would be protesting the same things 40 years later. But the take away for almost everyone who came to the MoMA event was that while we are incredibly frustrated that we are STILL having the same conversations, we were having them at MoMA, and our work was on the wall. We weren’t outside protesting because we hadn’t been included in a major Museum show about a turning point in NYC art history.
While it doesn’t feel that long ago, we are technologically in a radically different place. I developed my own film and photos in a darkroom and edited my films myself. There was no video playback, no endless do-overs. Our copy machines didn’t even have collators. I even recycled my contact sheets as pins that I sold at Fiorucci. The piece that MoMA bought is the only piece I made like that. Letting it go was wrenching.
3: Since the art on display at MoMA is from years ago. How did it end up resurfacing?
I got a Facebook message from my friend George Haas, a filmmaker, photographer and Danceteria doorman I knew in the early 80’s, saying that MoMA had gotten a hold of a flyer for an evening I curated at Club 57 and “wanted to talk to me about it.” There had been a show about the club in L.A. a few years before. I’d assumed any shows would be more of the same, retelling the same stories with a few famous names. Instead, MoMA went digging, following up every lead they could get their hands on to flesh out a more complete picture of what art and life was like back then. And in reality, there weren’t all that many of us making art on the edges of downtown. We used to joke that it was all done with smoke, mirrors, and maybe 150 people. By day, I worked in advertising at the agency that handled Chanel when Ridley Scott made the “Share the Fantasy” commercial. At night, and really any second I wasn’t working, I hung out at places like the Mudd Club, Club 57 or Hurrah, and I was either shooting my own work or working on other people’s films and projects. Somewhere in there I talked the ad agency into sending me to NYU for film classes and shot two short 16mm movies, both of which MoMA now has in their collection. I’ve always been a fan of satire and sending up pop culture icons, so one of my films has its own punk version of Charlie’s Angels. It also has a very early rap song I wrote.
The day after my gallery talk was Feb 14th. I couldn’t believe Parkland. Gun violence is out of control in America. That was not the case back in 1978 when I shot those photos on my Village apartment fire escape. What was true then in NYC, especially downtown, especially late at night, was very real and quite dangerous. Looking for Mr. Goodbar came out in 1977. The Son of Sam murders were in 1976-77. The Blackout was in 1977. This is the environment I was working in. In addition, the idea that women might have the same career opportunities as men was laughable. I was told by a marketing director that he wouldn’t take the time to train me because I’d just quit in a few years and have babies. I wanted to make work that was strong and direct, and let people know there could be consequences if they didn’t pay attention.
There also was a well-defined chasm in feminist art. Fashion and feminism didn’t go together. You burned your bra, stopped shaving your legs, eschewed make up, or you weren’t really committed to the cause. I thought that was ridiculous. I still do. Women are so much more than the stereotypes used to portray us, so much more nuanced. We can chew gum and walk at the same time.
My first conversations with MoMA were in the late summer of 2016. We all thought Hillary was going to be elected. We had a strong sense that finally the U.S. was waking up. We were going to be able to look at men who treated women like objects and tell them NO MORE. Given where we are with gun violence in the U.S., I felt almost embarrassed by the imagery. Why had I thought I needed that gun? What was wrong with me? And then I woke up the day after the election to what felt like a sucker punch in the gut, and I knew exactly why I had made those images. I remembered exactly how I had felt back then, and why I wanted to make someone look down the barrel of all my frustrations at a person holding the potential to make things change for them forever.
In my work then, and my work now, no one dies. There’s no blood. There is the threat of violence, of very real violence, but it doesn’t come to fruition because the reality of acting, of pulling the trigger, is too final. My women don’t want to use that kind of force. They just really really really want to get your attention.
5: What influences your art now? Are there inspirations or spaces/places you rely on regularly?
I recharge my art battery in Montclair at The Creativity Caravan. Amy and Maya have created such a strong and nurturing space where it’s really safe to try out new things. So much of the art world is about branding, being famous, a constant search for what show to be in, what show to see, but you have to protect your core if you want to make art, that part of you that is almost child-like. I can do that there.
Also, five years ago my husband and I bought 120 year old adobe casita in Santa Fe. It’s about as “other” to New Jersey as you can get. Santa Fe is very sophisticated, but it’s also like living in a small town. Places like Meow Wolf and SITE Santa Fe are revitalizing what was once an overpriced tourist town into a very dynamic, multi-cultural mecca. It’s where I get to truly reset my clock, refresh.
6: In which local NJ organizations are you active, and what draws you to them?
I’ve found a real haven volunteering at the Montclair Art Museum. I started as a docent, but my interest in Native American art got me involved with the reformation of their Rand Forum last year. MAM has a stellar Native American collection that they consistently feed with new work. Most people don’t realize that the museum exists in no small part because of an early Native American basket collection owned by Annie Valentine Rand and her daughter Florence Rand Lang, one of the Museum’s founders.
The Museum also has an amazing depth in their commitment to female artists. They are creating a historical legacy of works by women in the 20th and 21st century. From Lee Krasner and Nancy Spero to Mickalene Thomas, featured in “Inspired by Matisse,” an upcoming show of works by Kara Walker, and their current exhibition of Kay WalkingStick’s work. MAM is blazing a pretty bold trail.
I’ve also been involved with the Montclair Film festival since its inception and coordinate a small, mostly invisible team that does behind the scenes niche marketing. We’re the people who reach out to local groups to make sure they know about films and events they might enjoy before they sell out.
7: What events do you have coming up that center on your artwork?
I’m excited to be part of the Women Supporting Women Pop Up that Tracy NiCastro is hosting at Raven, her salon space, on March 11th. I learned about a print-on-demand clothing design site from Montclair artist Cat Morris a few years ago, and I’ve been uploading my new work to that site, plastering the images on backpacks, leggings, dresses, scarves. I’ll have sample pieces for sale and will also be taking custom orders. 10% of the sales will go to local non-profit S.O.F.I.A. And because I don’t ever seem to be able to just promote myself, I am bringing a line of handmade, small batch crystal charged oils, sprays, candles and incense made by an amazing woman in Florida. Of all the aromatherapy, scent-based products I’ve encountered, hers leap out as full of good intentions. They make me happy.
The Club 57 Exhibit at The Museum of Modern Art is up through April 1st, which means we get to have a closing day party on Easter Sunday. One of the artists, April Palmieri has coupled that with a call to be part of the traditional Fifth Avenue Easter Parade. We lived to dress up back in those days, so I can’t think of a better way to say goodbye to the show. I’ll be dressing friends for a prance down the Avenue in pieces from my print-on-demand collection. The films MoMA acquired, a 3 1/2 minute black and white short called Avoid Living the Lyric and the 20 minute long Such Sweet Dreams, will be screened as part of MoMA’s finale in the rotating gallery video program from March 26 to April 1.
Browse and buy Jennifer’s print-on-demand pieces at this link. 10% of the proceeds will be donated to local domestic violence advocacy non-profit Start Out Fresh Intervention Advocates. Follow events and exhibits of her work at her Avoid Living the Lyric Facebook Page.