Jennifer Thoreson, Photographer

TESTAMENT

I am attracted to vulnerability, to peeling back a skin that reveals something precious, dark, and tender. I am drawn to moments where people are on an edge, barely laced together, befriending disaster, remembering something, or exposing something. Testament explores themes of both resilience and dependency; it illustrates the heavy burdens we perpetually carry, and the relentless yearning for release.

This work was conceived through a spiritual lens. Matthew 11:28 reads: “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.” Testament probes into obscure, sensitive areas, exploring both earnest religious conviction, and the failure of faith. I am exploring spiritual labor and bearing weight, submission, futileness, and persistence.

To create the work, I rented an empty house for a year, and transformed it into a makeshift sanctuary, a freighted space for constructing photographs. I chose the house because it reminds me very much of the home I grew up in; It has a worn-in, gentle quality, and it evokes tangible memories of my religious upbringing. In the photographs, each room is styled with furnishings, textiles, and sentimental objects that I remember from my 1980’s childhood home.

I fabricated large-scale sculptural objects for each image, using materials such as wool, linen, clay, and human hair. The materials borrow symbolic language from the Bible, and create alter-like, fleshy masses. I imagine the house as a witness and testament to the curious events depicted in each image; it is a gateway, the silent space just before crossing over. This work is infused with my own inexhaustible, almost irrational empathy. The people in the photographs are in the final phase of bearing weight, the phase just after an aching fall, and just before renewal inevitably begins. I like to know and feel the moment where people fall apart, and saturate my work in it. I am seeking the moment of relief, and relishing in the moments just before it occurs.

Soulmates

More About Testament

This work is about two overarching themes--the maintenance and endurance of pain, and the vast assembly of spiritual questions that are tied up in human suffering. I am a devoted empath, almost to the point of self-detriment. When I was a little girl, I felt responsible for the feelings of everything I touched, and I bore a very real guilt for anything I believed to be hurt, neglected, or discarded. I really haven’t changed all that much, I have an awful time throwing things away, I feel the need to save, rescue, and restore everything--and everyone. Very often, I lie awake at night in tears, having stumbled upon an article or Facebook post about a total stranger whose baby died in their arms, or who has suffered another  miscarriage, or who has lost their teenaged boy in a shooting at a night club in Florida. I carry around their grief for days, weeks, months. I can’t wrap my head around that kind of suffering, and I put a lot of energy into processing other people’s pain. I’m not sure why, and It’s certainly something I would love to be able to switch off from time to time. Anguish develops a cancer in someone’s life that grows and morphs, attaches itself to relationships, memory, the physical body; it permanently alters the mind, and continuously strains the heart. I am extremely interested in the process of grieving, the process of maintaining, grooming, and managing pain. The depth of the wounds that people carry around is astonishing, and I find myself marveling at the very survival of them.

The second layer to all of this is the spiritual one, and the myriad of questions that lodge themselves into my thought process. Of course, I want to know why these terrible things happen to people, why certain people endure such sorrow; I want to know how the pieces fit together, and the great purpose for it all--but I find what I’m most interested in is the light at the end of the tunnel. I’m looking for the hope, the reward, and the relief. 1 Peter 5:6 reads “Humble yourselves, therefore, under God’s mighty hand, that he may lift you up in due time. 7 Cast all your cares on Him because he cares for you.” I am very intrigued by the act of laying down heavy burdens, the ability to cast off suffering, and the process of finding peace. 

Testament explores the endurance of great pain, and the hope and light that wondrously survives. I’m examining the transition from the clumsy, flawed human experience to total enlightenment and understanding. The knowledge and expectation of that release is woven into this work, together with themes of human vulnerability, naiveté, and limitation. All in all, the work is a massive pile of questions. It is evidence of the empathy that has carved out a permanent, worn-in space in my heart, and the mystery of the belief system that surrounds it.

Critical Review

By Rebekah Bellum

In her collection, Testament, Jennifer B. Thoreson’s staged photography and installations illustrate a complex range of human interactions, experiences, and relationships. Each scene is portrayed within a series of spaces, alongside an assemblage of sculptures and objects, that bear witness to the lives she represents. In this series of work, she investigates “the spiritual labor of bearing weight, submission, futileness, and persistence.” The collection is a testament to the heavy burdens of life – physical, emotional, and spiritual – and to the resilience of humanity and our most foundational connections – those of family, lovers, and friends. The installed exhibition echoes the themes of the photographs, and uses a material language connected to the bible to tell a story of sacrifice, promise, and transformation. In each photograph, the audience sees a moment of connection or solitude in which Thoreson invests a piece of herself, telling some aspect of her own childhood, memory, faith, and spirituality. By creating a work that is so rich and personal, she allows the viewer to connect personally to the narratives she tells.

In the photograph, “Cancer,” Thoreson captures a man and woman in a bedroom, flanked by two dogs. The bedroom is sparsely furnished with a bed in the corner, a chair at its foot, and several quotidian objects in the scene. The man stands on the bed facing the wall and is engulfed by a deep red organic mass emanating from his head. The woman, also facing the wall, appears to be sleeping. The two are in physical contact, connected at their legs. We wonder where in this image does the cancer lie? Is it the red mass, growing out of the man in an outwardly visible way? Or, does the man have cancer within his body, and the emanating red is a visible sign that he feels trapped, unable to see out, as the woman lays by his side? Does the woman have cancer, and the red is a sign of the grief and fear experienced by the man for the one he loves, a physical burden for him to carry? The depth of the work leaves space for any of these possibilities and more. Thoreson allows the meaning of her photographs to be arrived at individually, to depend upon the experiences of the viewer.

Throughout the collection, Thoreson explores the intricacies of many types of relationships. In “Father Daughter,” the father figure, heavy-laden with the pilings of a bulbous shell that seems to cripple him, pulling him towards the bed, is tenderly confronted by his daughter. Thoreson inverts the assumed relationship of parent and child, and shows the young girl caring for her father, encouraging him as he feels and bears the great burdens of his life. In “Inseparable,” two women – perhaps friends, sisters, or partners – are inexorably joined together. With shackled limbs, one reaches out while the other pulls away. Thoreson captures an irony, an unevenness, at times a suffocation that can exist in an “inseparable” relationship. She creates the same complexity, vulnerability, and emotion in each of her photographs as she expertly captures cares and burdens that are widely experienced but in incredibly personal, individualized ways.