Jennifer Thoreson, Photographer

TESTAMENT

I was raised in a devout Southern Baptist household in rural Texas. My family’s belief system was the firm, unwavering foundation of our home; every aspect of daily life was rooted in our faith. As a child, I was unusually tuned in to the suffering of those in bible stories--the violence, emotional trauma, and physical pain people endured. As I matured, I began to keenly observe and internalize the suffering of those around me, particularly those within my church. I was profoundly interested in how people processed and survived trauma and grief, and how gracefully they endured emotional pain. Even now, I tend to bury myself in the suffering of others; I am often empathetic to a fault. Matthew 11:28 reads: ‘Come to Me, all who are weary and heavy laden, and I will give you rest.’ To this day, this verse both comforts me and haunts me. I find hope woven into it, but also frustration and unfeasibility. I suffer from anxiety and find it nearly impossible to lay my own burdens down. In this work, I am probing into these furtive areas, investigating the management of pain in relationship to faith and deeply rooted belief systems.

To create the work, I sought out and rented a small house, and worked exclusively within it over the course of one year. The house itself is a direct reference to the home I grew up in; I wanted to re-activate and re-imagine the space where my understanding of faith is rooted. For each photograph, I fabricated site-specific installations and sculptures using biblically symbolic materials such as sheep’s wool, clay, and human hair. All twelve photographs are intricately staged and constructed within the rooms of the house, together with human subjects and sentimental objects from my 1980’s childhood home.

Soulmates

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, futility, 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.