Interview: Jen Stark

Math and psychedelia inspire "To The Power Of," a solo show at Martha Otero gallery

by Vivianne Lapointe


If you missed the jam-packed opening of Jen Stark‘s stellar solo show at LA’s Martha Otero gallery earlier this fall, you’re in luck—”To The Power Of” has just been extended for another month. Born in Miami and now based in LA, Stark is a master of color and geometry. Having initially developed her craft with paper and razor blades because it was all she could afford, Stark’s success has grown organically to gain her global recognition over the past several years, and her work is now collected by major institutions worldwide. It’s hard to imagine the amount of painstaking labor that goes into producing her extremely intricate kaleidoscopic paper sculptures. A talent we’ve followed since 2008, her work literally reels you in and demands a closer look. We had the chance to visit her studio for an in-depth interview, and tour her exhibition.


Why did you title your current show “To the Power of”?

I chose this title to emphasize the mathematics in my work, like saying “To the power of 10” and multiplying numbers exponentially, which relates to my patterns and process. A lot of my work has visual math in it, mimicking shapes that repeat throughout nature, from the microscopic to the immense. Also, it’s taking the idea of “Power” and how these works will be the culmination of all my energy.

Your work is extremely intricate. How would you describe your creative process? How long did it take you to finish this show?

For the paper sculptures, I usually draw out a sketch first. Then once I have an idea of what the sculpture will look like, I’ll choose the colored paper and stack it in the order I’ll need. I cut each sheet of paper, one by one with an X-acto knife, usually beginning with the largest hole and sequentially getting smaller. Sometimes I’ll use a pencil, ruler or compass, to make sure I have straight lines when I’m cutting. To finish this solo show it took me about half a year to complete all the work (which was eight pieces in total).

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Repetition work is mind-bending. Do you have to rest for a couple months before you can start another body of work, after you’re done with a show?

Especially after a solo show I usually take it easy for a couple of weeks, maybe doing little things here and there, and then am back at it again. There’s usually not much resting time before I have to meet another deadline for a show or project, which is cool because I love staying busy as long as my hands don’t start hurting. Crunch-time, like a week before a show opens I am really in the grind, staying up late and working for hours and hours trying to get things finished. Those days my hands are usually sore. I have a lot of intern help which is a life-saver. They help with a lot of the repetitive things like painting and gluing down layers of paper. It’s hard work but crunch-time is the most exciting time because there is so much excitement and energy racing through me.

The sunken pieces are hypnotizing. Are they really challenging to install?

The installation itself doesn’t take too long. It took a couple days to cut and finish the hole in the drywall. But cutting out and constructing the actual sunken paper sculpture took about a month. Then we had to mount the finished paper sculpture behind the wall, and line it up with the drywall cut. There were about four people helping to hold the heavy piece up in the back, while I was standing in the front of the hole telling them where to rotate and place the piece. Then we mounted it in place. That day, installing it only took a couple hours.


Which is your favorite piece you’ve created lately?

I really enjoyed two of most recent pieces in my solo show at Martha Otero called “Whole” (the large sunken paper sculpture installed in the gallery’s wall) and “Cosmic Distortion” (a zigzag-shaped pedestal/paper sculpture). The “Whole” really pulls you in because it looks like a strange complex wormhole that is a part of the wall. It’s my largest installation to date, at 3 x 3 x 3.5 feet deep. I love incorporating the sculptures with the space, and plan to do more of this in the future. The pedestal “Cosmic Distortion” is a colorful, jagged pedestal both beautiful and eerie. The psychedelic colors seem to vibrate, inviting the viewer to explore deeper down the hole. Both of these pieces are so striking and even better to view in person.

You often say you are inspired by science and psychedelia. Tell us more about your fascination.

I love thinking about how enormous shapes out in the universe can have the same patterns as tiny microorganisms under a microscope. How geometric shapes and certain spiraling patterns apply to designs in nature big and small. Also, it is interesting to me how much we still don’t know about science and the way things work. I hope to maybe reveal, on a visual level, some truth or insight about these ideas. My work relates to the psychedelic movement because of ideas of perception, and a sense of altered consciousness. I’m also drawn to the radiant colors associated with psychedelics and the fascination with optical patterns and mind alterations. I think in certain ways, psychedelia is a quest to discover unknowns about ourselves and the universe, and I’m striving to answer these type of questions through my artwork.


What’s your art world pet peeve?

My art world pet peeve would probably be some of the pretentiousness involved in the art scene. I think people are sometimes too scared to embrace things, even though they may be drawn to it. Like they need a higher power to justify and approve of their opinion. Good art should be inclusive rather than exclusive. I enjoy that my artwork attracts all different types of people from students, to teachers, artists, designers, middle-aged housewives and even mathematicians. My audience isn’t just limited to people in the art scene. Many different types of people are able to enjoy it and take something away from it.

Your show was full of Miami friends who had also made the move to Los Angeles. How do you feel about your move, and the scene here?

Yes! We did a mass exodus from Miami to LA! We just felt it was time for us to move on, sort of a trickle effect of a couple best friends deciding to move here. The Miami art scene is good, but I felt LA would help expand my career even more because there seems to be more opportunities here. Being born and raised in Miami, I was also ready for a new adventure and a change of scenery. Miami has a lot of amazing things about it, and will always be my home, but LA is where I want to be right now. I’m loving it here.

To the Power Of” runs through 1 December 2012 at Martha Otero gallery in LA.
Images courtesy of Kimberly Genevieve