In “Control”: Jen Rosenthal’s monastic works calm the chaos of modern culture

From the series "Control" by Jen Rosenthal; courtesy of the artist

From the series "Control" by Jen Rosenthal; courtesy of the artist

The short-lived sand paintings of Tibetan monks are as ritualistic as they are aesthetic. Requiring days of concentration and effort, the paintings are destroyed in a matter of minutes. Their value depends essentially on faith. For the Chicago artist Jen Rosenthal, faith meant overcoming the fear that she would never be able “to say the words out loud: ‘I’m an artist.’” With ink and thread, she’s found a method to pursue her interest in forms and meaning. Her show “Control” opens this weekend at the Chicago Art Department collective gallery in Pilsen.

Rosenthal began her art career at the Illinois Institute of Art–Chicago not long after it was founded. She explains that while she was not challenged by her school experience, she nevertheless graduated with a strong background in animation, drawing, video, and collage. After taking a job designing slot machines, she felt her creative powers dwindling and reevaluated her position. Ultimately, Jen says, “I stopped fighting myself,” and pursued the art that interested her most: a meditative process of creating “arrows that crossed back and forth on each other,” circles, and organic lines.

Rosenthal’s work is a spiritual process of concentration and slow labor that soothes her qualms about the tempestuous world. Its material existence is consequently much less important than its creation. Like the Tibetan monks, she has even destroyed some of her own work, in her case by painting over it. In creating the works shown in “Control,” Rosenthal found solace from a world of conflict, consumer culture, and economic hardship. “Bush stole my 20s–we were a country at war,” she laments. The “idea of mass chaos” in our society is a major theme in her work, and through drawing she finds the mental space from which to subdue it. Rosenthal describes her work as “completely about the process; the end piece is almost just the icing on the cake.”

For Rosenthal, the Chicago Art Department helps facilitate the artistic exploration of adults like herself who want to exercise creativity outside of work. The collective was started by three Chicago art teachers who provided a “kind of an after-school program for adults.” Now a resident artist as well as Director of Development there, Rosenthal confesses to identifying with the collective personally. In the midst of the drunken crowds attending Friday night openings, “Control” is her own oasis of tranquility. Chicago Art Department, 1837 S. Halsted St. Through April 24. Opening reception April 10. Friday, 6-10pm. Afterwards by appointment only.

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