Politics as unusual
Jen Graham’s art is punk, in that it values a DIY aesthetic—things that are homemade rather than factory produced—and it's politically confrontational. It’s also feminist, in that it presents embroidery, a traditionally marginalized medium associated with domesticity and women, in a professional gallery setting. But she doesn’t identify herself as either of those things, because if you identify as something like that, then you’re associated with all the other statements made under that banner.
Her work could also be considered Americana, because it explores U.S. history. Her current exhibition at Truckee Meadows Community College is cheekily called The Blessings of Liberty. It consists primarily of three separate series, My Presidents, a series of presidential portraits, At War with Ourselves, inspired by Civil War photography, and Loudmouths, portraits of TV commentators.
Graham studied photography at the University of Nevada, Reno, but as the photography industry moved away toward digital printing, she began looking for a new medium. Her mother had taught her to sew, and she was interested in making quilts and clothes, and she began making small fabric sculptures, all of which eventually led her to embroidery.
“The first thing I ever embroidered was John Quincy Adams,” she said recently. Her portrait of the sixth U.S. president includes the epithet “The Failed Idealist.”
“He came into the presidency with all these super grand progressive ideas, like public school systems and extensive roads, all these things that 50, 75 years later we totally had, but he was ahead of this time with all these progressive ideas,” she said. “At the time, people were not looking for that kind of thing … and he wasn’t really able to accomplish anything as president.”
The series includes portraits of all the past presidents, each with a new sobriquet invented by Graham.
“It’s pretty easy to tell which presidents I really despise, like Andrew Jackson,” she said. “He’s pretty much the worst.”
She gave him the nickname “The Relentless Bully” based primarily on his relentless persecution and slaughter of Native Americans.
Photography is still her favorite medium as a viewer, and she’s especially interested in photography from the Civil War era. In At War With Ourselves, many of the pieces use Civil War imagery to discuss current issues and events. For example, “Health Care” features an embroidered illustration of three wounded soldiers standing on crutches, accompanied by bold text proclaiming, “health care is a privilege, not a right,” a phrase Graham borrowed from the 2012 Republican Party platform.
“I just took that phrase and put it next to an image of wounded soldiers to get people to think about, ’What are they trying to say?’” she said. “Is this really something we should believe? Should it be a right? Who says who deserves to afford or get health care? Just to question these things.”
The third series, Loudmouths, features embroidered portraits of contemporary TV talking heads, like Donald Trump, Rush Limbaugh and Ann Coulter, with their mouths open in angry articulation, seemingly spewing acrylic paint.
“They’re not supposed to be realistic depictions,” said Graham. “They’re just supposed to show the grotesqueness of the amount of chatter that’s just constantly spewing from their mouths, poisoning our society.”
Although she’s generally hesitant to embrace labels, like feminist or punk, Graham said she is comfortable identifying herself as a political artist.
“Art and music—there are all kinds of ways to convey ideas that aren’t just political commercials or essays,” she said.