I recently had the opportunity to chat up Sixty writer Jenny Lam. She takes on many roles within the art world and I learned that, in addition to writing and curating, she started an artist representation business. I also learned that Jenny’s witty humor is not in short supply. Sixty on Sixty is a new series in which SIFCers interview one another, allowing readers to get to know the fine folks who bring you the latest from Chicago’s art scene.
Where did you grow up?
I grew up in Northbrook, Illinois. It’s a good place for families to start out, but it’s a suburb, so interpret that as you will.
Tell me about your New York days? Did you study there?
Yes, I went to Columbia University and majored in Visual Arts and Creative Writing, with a focus on poetry.
I ran the undergraduate art gallery, Postcrypt. It was, oddly, in the basement of a chapel and we’d often have to throw curtains over the artwork. The first show I curated by myself there was called The Naked Show, and I played with the connotations of nudity vs. nakedness, notions of exposure, that kind of thing… but also allowed for literal interpretations. At the opening reception one of my classmates asked me if she could strip down and just walk around nude and chat with her friends as if nothing was different, and of course I said yes, and the entire time I was paranoid a “real” adult would come downstairs and catch us (there’s this weird rule that posits you can’t have alcohol and nudity in the same venue).
A friend and I would also go tagging. New York really is the city that never sleeps–a downside for taggers. But I think the fact that we look like these completely unassuming and innocent girls worked in our favor, although we did get chased out of a park once.
For my senior thesis project, I created hundreds of self-addressed, pre-stamped postcards. Written on one side was the prompt, “Tell me one thing you dream of doing before you die. Use this card as your canvas.” On the bottom corner of each card, I wrote a little code. I then went all over Manhattan and left cards in public places, using the codes to record where I left each card. Then, when they returned to me, I looked at the codes and was able to tell exactly where each card had been found. Part of it was an exploration in blurring the lines between private and public, and in the end, I created a map of New York City from all these people’s dreams. Best way to get to know a city.
I interned at Eyebeam, which is a nonprofit art and technology center in the heart of Chelsea and they had a robot that served alcohol at openings. After that I interned at Christie’s, which remains the most corporate environment I’ve ever been in. It was a great learning experience and I learned a great deal about the art market.
What made you decide to move to Chicago?
Honestly, at first, it was entirely practical; New York was too expensive for me and the economy had tanked not long before I graduated, so there were pretty much no job openings in my fields of interest. It made sense to come back to Chicago. Although it isn’t really coming “back,” since before college I lived in the suburbs. Now I’m actually in the city, so it’s an entirely new experience.
What’s your favorite Chicagoan thing to do?
I love seeing live music and I prefer smaller venues like the Empty Bottle or Hideout, which are my favorites. The Metro’s probably my favorite mid-sized venue, despite its weird location in the middle of godawful Wrigleyville. (Was that a non-Chicagoan thing to say?) I also love the dilapidated old ballrooms; I once saw Gogol Bordello at the Congress and it felt like the place was going to fall apart. Now that it’s summer there’s outdoor concerts and festivals, even though I’d rather see shows indoors and at night. Last year we rushed the stage during Caribou at Millennium Park, which resulted in the banning of alcohol on park premises for the rest of that season. Sorry!
Dance parties, art parties, art shows, comedy shows… I have friends in comedy and that’s a great scene. I live in Logan Square and I love it there. I have a few friends in Boystown and that’s a wonderful area too. There needs to be a much more convenient way to get from Logan Square to Lakeview via public transportation though. New York turned me off driving so I rely on the CTA. A friend suggested the city build an East-West train connecting the two ‘hoods and call it the Rainbow Line.
How about your beverage of choice?
Are we talking alcoholic here? That’s a tough question to answer. I’m just going to say that after watching The Last Days of Disco, I’ll never be able to order a vodka tonic again without feeling sheepish.
Now that we got those important items out of the way, tell me about how you got interested in art?
I’ve been drawing for literally as long as I can remember. My parents have stacks and stacks of drawings from my childhood, beginning from when I was a baby. To this day, I can’t hold pens the correct way because I started using them when my hands were too small to properly grip them. If you watched me write, it’d look like I’m making a fist. I’d write my own books and illustrate them, stapling together sheets of computer paper.
What really got me hooked on art was visiting Disneyland when I was four. I idolized Walt Disney. I never missed a single Disney animated feature. For the longest time, The Hunchback of Notre Dame was my favorite film, and I got to see some of the behind-the-scenes work on that. When I was eight, my dad mailed some of my “books” to a Disney director and animator (this was before Google and any of that, by the way; my dad watched the end credits of several of my favorite Disney films at the time on VHS and wrote down some of the bigger names), and the animator was impressed and invited my parents and me to a free private tour of the animation studios in Burbank, California. Afterwards, he asked me to draw something for him on the spot, and he told me I could have a job there as a storyboard artist–often how directors start out–when I turned eighteen. My little eight-year-old self told him that, while that would be cool, I wanted to go to college first. Oh man. I have no regrets, though, haha. Children, stay in school!
Is there a particular artist or style of art that has influenced you?
The answer people probably want to see is of some achingly obscure fine artist or revolutionary art movement, but really I’m just a big cartoon geek. Other than Disney, as a kid, cartoons like Animaniacs and Tiny Toons were extremely influential on my own work, not only aesthetically but also in the stories I’d write, especially when it came to humor. I was also into Batman: TAS and Gargoyles, and The Simpsons taught me that having a good story–or, more applicably, a good idea–is much more important than aesthetics, although technical skill is something I equally value. And I’m a huge Pixar fan. Animation is such an underappreciated art form. That there’s a separate category for it at the Oscars is proof. Unlike live action films, with animation, there’s no or little room for mistakes or improvisation. Every detail has been pored over at painstaking levels.
As a teenager I was really into the Renaissance masters/the Ninja Turtle artists. It actually wasn’t until the beginning of college that I came to appreciate and love modern and contemporary fine art. Being in New York and actively seeking it and surrounding myself with it helped. And now, obviously, I’m all about contemporary art. Stylistically, though, German Expressionism, film included, had a great impact on me. Music and poetry are also big influences.
How did you become involved with the Zhou B Art Center and 4Art?
I interned at 4Art in Summer 2008 when it was in Pilsen and it was a great experience. After I graduated, Robin Rios, the gallery director and owner, invited me to curate shows there, and by that point the gallery had moved to its current location at the Zhou B Art Center. The biggest show I did there was Somnambulist last year. People always ask me about the title; it’s from a poem I wrote several years ago about a sleepwalking automaton who was programmed to murder villagers. Very German Expressionist.
I also represent Robin as an artist agent. Other than artist representation, in my business, I do a lot of writing (press releases, artist bios, artist statements), and I curate shows independently. I have one called Exquisite Corpse coming up on Friday, September 2, at the Fulton Street Collective. It’s a very different kind of show since, instead of asking artists to just submit work, I’m selecting artists based on their portfolio and then arranging them into pairs or groups of three and having them collaborate with one another on pieces for the show. I’m really excited about it. There will also be audience-participatory art and some crazy performance art acts at the opening, so watch out for that.
Starting my artist representation business was partly a way to logically bring together different passions of mine, and partly a reaction to problems I’ve noticed in my experience in the art world, problems that I’d like to solve. Since I’ve had experience being on both sides, as an artist and as an arts professional, as well as in realms of the art world that can’t be more different from each other–gallery, nonprofit, auction house–I can act as a mediator. That’s my first word of advice, not just to artists, but to everyone, especially young people who are either looking for jobs or aren’t satisfied with what they’re currently doing: if you see a problem, solve it. Think there’s a lack of opportunities for you? Instead of waiting for them to come to you, create your own.
I blog about my artists, news in the art world, and other art-related topics at http://artistsonthelam.blogspot.com. I’m kind of in over my head, but then again, I tend to always be; after all, I used to be That Kid who lugged around huge textbooks, an art portfolio, sheet music, swim team duffel bag, and debate team file folders everywhere.
Do you plan on working within the arts field long-term or do you ever see yourself doing something unrelated to art?
I’ve been doing art all my life and I would never be able to not do art. It’s who I am. I’m so thankful my parents have always been supportive of me. They never pushed me to be a doctor or lawyer or any of that. (Insane, right? Especially when you consider I’m 1. Asian and 2. their only child, so I’m all they’ve got.) I’ll always be making art and I’ll always be supporting other artists. For now, I’ll continue creating art, writing about art, curating art shows, and representing artists. I love what I’m doing. One of these days I’m going to be successful enough to buy my parents a big house and fly them around the world. It’s only fair since they’ve taken me all over the world, but mostly it’ll be a way of saying, “Thanks for putting up with an artist as your only kid, guys.”