JANNA STERN, PHOTOMONTEUSE
Except, perhaps, for cinema, photomontage (which resembles film in many ways) is the most 20th century of artistic media. Its insistent pictoriality, always invoking a narrative content of some kind, evinces its direct descendance from the discursive painting that dominated the 19th century. And its method of mixing and matching, breaking apart and re-fusing, makes it the perfect technique to which to apply the digital tools of the 21st. Janna Stern thus comes out of the century into which she was born, looking back to its origins and ahead into its evolution.
Stern’s artistic roots in the 20th century, and back into the 19th, are not just a formal result of her commitment to the photomontage format. As a retired psychiatrist, she limns one of the last century’s most significant professions – and as an artist concerned with psychological states, conditions, even pathologies, she echoes Freud and Jung, Klein and Laing no less than Picasso, Cornell, Schwitters and Magritte. Her most direct antecedents, however, are figures notable for turning their eyes outward on the world, politically engaged artists such as George Grosz and John Heartfield and artists such as Georges Hugnet and Hans Bellmer who – in the wake of the Psychological revolution – militated for a liberated unconscious.
Most of all, however, Stern’s forefathers are actually foremothers. Her commitment to the female point of view, nurtured in the “feminist years” of the 1960’s and 70’s, puts her in line with several generations of photomonteuses, women such as Hannah Hoch and Claude Cahun, Anita Steckel and Hannah Wilke whose intense self-regard was in fact a social stance, a declaration that the self was a site of contestation, that women’s bodies and women’s psyches figured (usually passively, but hopefully more actively) in social discourse in a fundamental way. The personal is the political, all these artists insisted, and in Stern’s hands, the personal serves the social –and, more importantly, vice versa. Particularly with the United States in the throes of a new dispute over at least certain women’s rights, Stern’s is, once again, a politically charged attitude.
In her various series, which by and large she continues simultaneous to one another, Stern examines the personal, the political, and the psychological as a unified field; but each series unifies these elements to different effect. Her most forceful series examine the nominally aesthetic – which is to say, implicitly (or for that matter explicitly) sexualized – role of women in our society. Centering around how women’s bodies are imaged, and how that imaging is manipulated, Stern variously looks at the public results of that imaging and at the results of that process on the psychological well-being – actually, not-so-well-being – of the women thus subjected. In other series, conversely, Stern reflects on the personally pleasurable, a pleasure derived, ironically enough, not from bodily sensuality but from the stimulation of intellectual faculties and the visceral thrill of movement and displacement – that is, from travel and the process(es) of discovery travel engenders.
Does travel indeed “engender”? Is there a particularly womanly way of traveling, or, more to the point, of regarding travel and its pleasures? Stern argues – here from a personal point of view – not that there is, but that there may be. In presenting travel as a condition of reading spaces and objects – images, perhaps recollected, of buildings, cities, landscapes, as well as documents, Baedekers, postage stamps – Stern does not claim such a condition as peculiar to women, but she does infer that the condition, however available to men, is a feminine prerogative, a process of learning that requires a vital mix of, even balance between, the passive and the active. Similarly, the prescription Stern implies in her series critiquing body image and its discontents is for women (and for that matter, sympathetic men) to take an active role in deconstructing the passively received constructs about beauty and desirability that society conveys to use.
Critiquing beauty does not mean Stern practices ugliness. To the contrary, her work is itself frequently beautiful, usually tasteful (despite some jarring juxtapositions – the prerogative of the photomonteur, and especially of the photomonteuse), and always well crafted. All messages are best delivered with a certain craft, and all media afford their own eloquence. Having mastered more than just the rudiments of digital manipulation, Stern re-speaks the language of consumer manipulation – which includes inducement to travel as well as inducement to beauty – into a language of viewer revelation. Through Janna Stern’s photomontage, we know better how we see what we are shown, and how we thus stand among what we see.