Dear Jon: In Her New Show, Inquisitive Artist Jennifer Dalton Asks Talk Show Hosts WTF?

Dear Jon: In Her New Show, Inquisitive Artist Jennifer Dalton Asks Talk Show Hosts WTF?
Brooklyn-based artist Jennifer Dalton at her Winkleman Gallery exhibition "Cool Guys Like You"
(Photo by Micah Schmidt)

Jennifer Dalton is an emerging Brooklyn artist who doesn't shy away from making a political statement (unlike so many of her contemporaries). Through a variety of media ranging from sculpture, installation, and drawing, to event organization, Dalton sticks her nose where mainstream discourse tells her it doesn't belong. 


Her work with co-conspirator William Powhida in the critical consciousness-raising events "#class" and "#rank" targeted the imbalances of art-world power structures, using group discussion to dissect a shared sense of struggle among artists. Pieces like "Would You Rather Be a Loser or a Pig?" and "Are Times of Recession Good For Art?" confront viewers (who also become conscripted and implicated participants in the artist's inquiries) with difficult questions of money's impact on creativity and the inherently competitive nature of the art world.


Dalton's latest solo show, "Cool Guys Like You," which opens at Winkleman Gallery this Friday, September 9 at 6 p.m., needles the gender inequalities of mainstream media, asking the question: Why are talk show guests predominantly male? "I would like to understand why men are still perceived as more brilliant, more fascinating and more important than women," Dalton writes in a letter addressed to a handful of celebrity media hosts including Terry Gross, Brian Lehrer, and Stephen Colbert. "Might it be possible to get a bit more critical about the internal and external forces that encourage all of us to think that men produce the best ideasand cultural products out there?"

In this ARTINFO Q&A, Dalton speaks on the activist side of her practice, how what annoys her drives her to make art, and the questionable label of "social media artist." 

Your statement for the show is in the form of a letter to various television and radio hosts challenging them for their choice of interview subjects. How did talk show guests become the central focus of the exhibition?

I have been noticing for awhile that a lot of people and institutionsthat I really admire might not actually reflect my own ideology andinterests as much as I had presumed. I respect all these talk show hostsand I really enjoy public radio and political talk shows on TV to aperhaps unhealthy degree. Yet I believe it's crucial for anyone whowants to be informed to hear a variety of perspectives, and I have beenrealizing that the variety is not necessarily very wide on these shows.And I was surprised, because these people who make these shows are socool! And then I started thinking about "coolness" in general, and whatis good and bad about being cool, and the different meanings ofbeing cool. So there is also work in the show about coolness moregenerally.

But what has Terry Gross ever done to you!?

Terry Gross and all of these hosts and their staffs have entertainedand/or schooled me for countless hours. But these shows shape ourculture, they don't just reflect it. And if they present approximately80 percent male-based opinions and artistry at this point in time that's justabsurd, unhealthy, and boring.

The "Cool Guys Like You" exhibition builds on previous work thathas directly confronted imbalances both inside the art world and out.Can you talk about the activist strain in your art work?

I've been realizing that I'm sometimes inspired by things that botherme. I think I must actually enjoy being annoyed in some way. A lot of mywork starts with a voice in my head that thinks, "Is it just me?" Andthen I am driven to analyze or count things up to figure out if theworld around me is as crazy, imbalanced and bizarre as I had beenthinking it might be. Usually it's even worse than I thought. But peopleand situations are also just always so ridiculous that there is usuallyhumor to be unearthed even in unpleasant findings. So then I have anurge to find a way to display that craziness and absurdity, to bring itto people's attention in a visual, visceral way.

Your work ranges between interactive sculptures, wall pieces, and organized events like #rank and #class. How do those different formats compliment each other?

I only hope that they do. For me, an idea or concept is the first sparkof inspiration. And then I work to find and build the perfect form ormanifestation for the idea, and that manifestation could end up takingphysical shape as just about anything. In the case of #rank and #class,those are collaborative projects with William Powhida that I don't thinkeither one of us would have ever cooked up on our own, but at the sametime those projects make a certain kind of sense in each of ourpractice.

In "What Does an Important Person Look Like?" you visualize a group of talk show guests with a grid of miniature television screen captures composed in a wall-mounted graph. What role does digesting and diagramming information play in your work?

In that piece those are all guests from one show, the Daily Show withJon Stewart. The piece shows all the guests the Daily Show featured in2010. I am truly interested in the liberal-mainstream answer to my titlequestion "What does an interesting person look like?", so looking at allthe guests from one show for one year is incredibly fascinating for me.When they are all laid out visually you see patterns that are impossibleto see when you watch one show at a time over a year. First and mostobviously it is impossible not to notice that the guests areoverwhelmingly male and white. But I also notice subtler differences andtrends of dress, manner, and gesture. I have arranged the pictures sothat the guests in each row are invited on for different types of work:there is a row of 37 actors and a row of one chef and a row of fourfilmmakers (among others — there are 10 total rows). I enjoy seeing howmuch importance this one influential show gives to different types ofcultural producers. Although I watch the show almost every day I havelearned not to trust my impressions forged over time. If I didn't countthe guests all up and arrange them into a diagram, I would never havethought the Daily Show featured so many actors, nor did I guess that themale/female ratio of guests would be so skewed. It turns out the ratio is approximately 79 percent to 21 percent.

You once dissected the contents of New York Magazine art critic Jerry Saltz's Facebook page in a 2010 piece called "What Are We Not Shutting Up About? (Five Months of Status Updates and Responses from Jerry Saltz's Facebook Page)", which was included in Hrag Vartanian's "The Social Graph" exhibition. How do you feel about the social media art label? Would you count yourself as a social media artist?

The way people seem to be using the term now, a social media artist isan artist who uses some sort of mediated communication (Twitter,Facebook, Skype, and so on) as the basis for his or her work, and I haven'tdone that yet. The Jerry Saltz Facebook piece was a painting/drawing using social media as its subject. So I'm not a social media artist at this point, but I wouldn't rule out using social media directly for something in the future. And for what it's worth, I don't understand the recent hullabaloo about "social media art." It's a medium, I don't see how it can either be dismissed orpraised in general terms; one must grapple with each individual artist.

Jennifer Dalton's exhibition "Cool Guys Like You" opens at Winkleman Gallery (621 West 27th Street) on Friday, September 9 at 6 p.m.