In 2010, when Jillian Mayer was 26, it was a very good year, one that included having her “Scenic Jogging” short video featured in the Guggenheim’s Youtube Play Creative Video Biennial and a spot in MoCA’s Optic Nerve. Mayer is on her way to having another a good year with the opening of her first solo show, Family Matters, on Saturday, April 9 (Art Walk), at the David Castillo Gallery.
A multimedia exhibition, Family Matters represents a search for identity in the artificial worlds of 90s family sitcoms. On Monday night, I spoke to Mayer as she drove from Wal-Mart with a truck load of flat screen TVs that will figure in her show. We discussed the dearth of avant-garde households on cable, Judy Winslow’s transformation into “Crave”, and Mayer’s collaboration with the Borscht Film Festival to remake an obscure French art film starring Uncle Luke.
Tell me about the show and why you chose the name.
JM: The show is called Family Matters. I picked that name because I thought it would be really funny. The people from our age demographic can relate to that name as a TV show name, but it’s also a play on words. I like to take on serious matters with a satirical approach, and always intertwine comedy into it. A lot of my personality and my work is heavily informed by all the television I watched when I was young, so I thought the name would be a perfect fit.
I think I was really fascinated with the characters that existed inside this little TV in my room when I was a kid. For a long time, I guess I thought that those were real families. You know, now I work in production and I know how fake every aspect of it is. But I remember really thinking they were real when I was little. I didn’t understand when people said it was all constructed and existed on these sets.
Did you watch a lot of TV as a kid?
JM: Yeah, I watched a lot. At some point, I got limited to two hours a day. I also just liked to have it on. It was really good background white noise.
Did you like shows like Family Matters and Full House?
JM: Those family sitcoms, I didn’t really love them, but they were always a part of my childhood. Then as I got older, I realized that all of these characters that I was supposed to relate to and become a fan of, they were all based off these stereotypes of family structure. There weren’t any avant-garde households. I guess Full House, where the mother died and they had all those uncles there was the most non-traditional.
What about My Two Dads?
JM: I remember the name.
The lead actress [Staci Keanan] ended up being in Step by Step.
JM: Oh yeah, I remember! Did she go into porn or something?
I don’t know. Probably. [She didn’t.]
JM: The girl from Family Matters, the younger sister Judy, went into porn.
[Ed. Mayer is talking about Jamiee Foxworth, who evidently did do porn under the name “Crave”. We eventually got back to discussing Mayer’s show.]
I just was really intrigued by this family structure that was designed by casting agents and script writers that we were supposed to identify with. I held them as ideals. The female characters became like these heroines for me. I really wanted to be them. Not them as an actress portraying them, but I really wanted to be them. I would think about what it would be like to be April O’Neil on Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. I guess as a child — or as a human — you desire to be what you’re not.
How does that show up in your show?
JM: I describe this show as the search for identity in the absence of guidance. It’s a lot about leaving legacies in your family. Creating them. Using other people to figure out who you are, or the perceived version of yourself. And then there’s also a lot of references to being stuck in the role that you are given. I don’t want to say it’s a search for identity … That sounds so cheesy, like I’m going to Europe for the summer.
What are the components of the show?
JM: There’s video, sculptural, photography — which kind of serves as documentation of the installation – and performative aspects. When I say performance, it’s kind of linked to inactivity, which is the opposite of what people tend to think of. The performers I’m using are part of the installation, and they basically just exist within the piece.
Are you going to be performing?
JM: No, not this time.
Is that for any reason? It stands out that you appear in a lot of your work.
JM: I’m in all of the videos, and I’ll be in the documentation of the installation but not the live performance.
Why do you choose to appear in so much of your work?
JM: At this point in my artistic practice, as a performance artist, I feel the concepts that I’m trying to illustrate, a lot of them are first hand, and I’m exploring concepts that are close to my heart. It’s easy for me to know what I want to see. So I can direct another performer to do it, but right now it’s easiest for me to really nail what I’m going for … and I don’t need to use anyone else. Also I’m always available [to myself].
You work a lot with the Borscht Film Festival crew. What is the nature of that collaboration?
JM: Since I started working in video art, some of the collaborations I’ve done with Borscht have been really fluid and really fun. I like to team up with [festival director] Lucas Levya — we work really well as a team. I end up art directing a lot of his projects.
[Ed. Mayer starts to tell me about a project she is working on with Levya to remake the 1962 French science-fiction film La jetée starring Luther Campbell. That Luther Campbell. The film will screen at Borscht on April 23.]
It’s an obscure French art film that takes places through photographs and voiceover. We remade that with Uncle Luke, who’s now running for mayor.
That’s odd. What was that like?
JM: Luther was great. He had a really good sense of humor, was really down to earth, really supportive of the project, and really open to it. I think he thought it was pretty funny, and he a really great attitude about it.
Getting back to your show, you told me [pre interview] that it was going to be weird. “Good weird.” Why is it going to be weird?
JM: I don’t know if it’s weird. I mean, I think it’ll be entertaining, which is a goal I strive for in my work. I hope it’s entertaining. When you make art or a film, you’re taking from people’s lives sometimes, so hopefully they’ll enjoy it — or hate it! Either one is good.
That’s what people say, but you don’t really want anyone to hate it.
JM: If they hate it, I just want to know why.
Have you encountered that? Over the last year you’ve had a lot of success and gotten a lot of love, but have you also encountered the opposite?
JM: Well, I don’t hang out too much with my enemies. I don’t really have any — that I know of. I hang around with a lot of funny people, so they seem to be keen on my work because I generally think most of my projects, at least on one level, are somewhat comedic.
The Family Matters opening is one of our Top Five Art Events in April.