“Just like no one is surface deep, what you see on the surface of my work isn’t necessarily what it’s about,” says Toronto artist Jen Mann. Her large-scale portraits question how we present ourselves and see one another in an era of extreme self-awareness. Mann has caught the art world’s attention thanks to recent canvases that explore those themes, in part, through the lens of a magazine cover.
In painting, figurative realism is having a moment, especially for Canadians such as Kris Knight, Andy Dixon and Chloe Wise. They, like Mann, have made names for themselves within fashion circles for the stylish ways they portray deeper truths about identity, while collaborating with brands such as Gucci and Versace. In Mann’s case, her pieces have been commissioned by the likes of Red Bull, CIBC and Absolut.
Mann has worked mostly in realism since she was young but her preference for the rosy colour palette that’s become synonymous with her canvases is more recent. “As a kid, I hated pink,” says Mann. “I was like, no way!” Growing up as a younger sister to four brothers, Mann revelled in the life of a tomboy. “I didn’t relate to anything female,” she says. Lately, however, Mann has built a career on reimagining her world through the millennial shade. “To me, it’s genderless,” she says. “But there’s an element of girlishness to it, which is to say innocent immaturity, projected onto it.”
As she pursued a career in art, Mann explored other mediums, first completing a BFA in printmaking at the Ontario College of Art and Design in 2009 and then exploring multimedia work and sculpture. In 2014, she began to subvert the beautiful surfaces of her work with a solo show called Q&A at Neubacher Shor Gallery in Toronto that featured projections of other images painted over her subjects’ faces. The shift helped win Mann the 2015 Kingston Prize, which recognizes contemporary portrait work by Canadian artists.
For her 2019 show, Metonymy, at Gallery Jones in Vancouver, Mann created an alternate tongue-in-cheek universe inhabited by different characters – the artist, the pop star, the director, and so on - whose personal narratives were teased out through a series called Cover Girl. The characters, all played by Mann herself, posed for imaginary magazine covers, alluding to the altered perception of celebrity through the media.
She describes the work as a study of the post-Internet selfie. On a Frieze cover, Mann dons a haunting clear plastic mask, which reveals only her eyes. You can’t quite tell if the subject’s heavy eyeshadow, blush and lipstick are part of the cover-up or the face beneath. Behind a Nylon Germany masthead, Mann’s face is obfuscated by emojis. “My eyes are closed so you can’t actually see me, but you’re seeing all of these emotions I feel about myself on top of my face,” she says. “Since [the selfie] was created, the way we see ourselves has become kind of horrific.”