Surf’s up dude! the wild and wacky crypto pipeline is gnarlier than ever, and while the Great White Shark—the Art World—or at least its more dyed in the wool Collectors, look upward and outward with squinty reluctance at the unseasonably savory swells, an arguably democratizing and inarguably bizarre moment has arrived upon our cultural shores. Yes, Non-Fungible Tokens (transactional digital artworks, basically) are the soup du jour, the talk of the town. The ‘‘minting’’ of NFTs and their online brokerage are creating a sort of cultural craze as a new lexicon of price tags, platforms, ownership, transference, unlockability—all pegged to ‘‘Ethereum’’, a digital currency—have seen entities as varied as The NBA to Kings of Leon to David Zwirner dip their toes in the salty seas of next generation creative commerce and propriety. And it’s really fun! It’s also really weird, and by the time you read this, things will already have changed in the space, as the cultural phenomena is shape-shifting on a daily basis (a la the corny oceanic wave metaphor above).
Enter artist Jen Stark, a multi-media artist who lives out here in LA, and whose optically-seductive sculptures, paintings, animations, and mojo make her an extremely appealing prospect in the NFT and crypto art world. Stark is that 21st century sweet spot of artistic talent—like, you can actually touch much of her super cool work—met with a curiosity and enthusiasm for innovation and invention in the digital stratosphere. A killer hybrid! And, like much of the conversation as it concerns the NFT dance, Stark’s dynamism is evidenced, accounted for, and documented online (one of the “weirder” symptoms of artsy crypto-capitulation, she’ll remark to me). To whit: Stark, who created this issue’s art cover, became one of the more notable names in the NFT explosion a couple months back, when her artwork, Multiverse, sold to a collector for 150 Ethereum. At the time, that sum amounted to $250,000. At present (and again we’re bearing in mind what is likely to be a yo-yo style journey as it relates to Ethereum valuation in the coming weeks, months, whatever), the artwork—now of course no longer in Stark’s “possession”, but in the “possession” of a person online, in an exclusive online network of other crypto-enthusiasts—values at something closer to $620,000. Jesus Christ!!! What the hell is going on!?!?!
Naturally, there’s some balking afoot regards certain NFT successes, given so many of these online commodities are exclusively that—rendered in Illustrator, After Effects, or the like—never to take that first step in the real world. Add that some of these artworks are fetching considerably higher sums than those of other artists who render bronze into realistic figures, or use oil to paint stunning scenery, could be said to leave a lot of room for detestation. For wariness, for dismissiveness.
But that’s the Art World, kids. What works for one does not work for another, and many will attest that the real art is navigating the complex system of buying and selling it. So kudos to what many consider a great democratization and decentralization of the power-fixated and privilege-laden structures that be! For Stark, I can only imagine her desirability online will aide in the sales of her IRL works. Who knows…
Stark doesn’t. But she’ll do her homework, she’ll put in the hours, she’ll proceed with optimism, and she’ll see where the fuck it all goes. Right now, the 38 year-old artist, who grew up in Miami and earned a BFA from the Maryland Institute College of Art, is just enjoying the ride. Having done site-specific interior commissions and murals for entities ranging from Gagosian Gallery, Beverly Hills to the headquarters of Facebook, from collaborations with MTV Video Music Awards to Vans sneakers, Stark looks ahead at an NYC commission that will feature an interactive animation / projection, the details of which are relatively still under wraps.
Beyond her positioning at present, what deeply attracted this publication to showcase her work, what makes Stark a rad artist, is an ethos we can get behind more than ever in light of the shit storm of the last year. Given an “In The Garden” theme afoot editorially, that Stark has long considered repetitive and beautiful patterns in nature as the spiritual template for her works—well, who else would you rather be picnicking alongside, particularly if you’re desiring something of a synaptic slip-n-slide, or to be hypnotically-healed and soothed by color?
I had the privilege of conversing with Stark in between her bopping around the COVID-centric iteration of the Frieze Art Fair in New York City. Here, we talk about the NFT boom and the emotions riding side saddle, the imperative of sticking with what you know and pushing it as you go, and how a little confidence can go a long way in this sometimes colorless and oppressive world we live in.
You’re in New York to check out this unique iteration of Frieze, huh? Was there a lot of COVID-themed art afoot?
No actually, I don’t think I saw any. I guess people are trying to avoid that.
That’s probably refreshing. We talked before about the ‘In The Garden’ theme with the magazine, and a lot’s been said about the relationship of your work with nature. Talk about that?
I’ve always been inspired by nature. It’s a big part of my work. I take the mathematical parts of nature, and visually translate them. There’s all these different equations, like pi, inserted into nature, with spiraling shapes and different fractures. I’m also inspired by the colors of nature, as they are an attractant or repellent. It’s either attracting you to eat this delicious apple or telling you this frog is poisonous, don’t eat it. So I love that back and forth that nature gives us with color and spectrums of light.
Yes, I’ve read you’re an admirer of the Fibonacci sequence. Do you feel your practice starts with some sort of event and scales out as such? Do you feel there’s sequentiality? Where do you go in nature that influences this?
I definitely see my art as sequential. Taking one shape and idea, and magnifying it and replicating it. I see it as one shape or process done many times, so it grows and grows. I love going to the desert. It’s kind of a stark landscape, but you see the subtle nuances of it, when the sun starts going down and everything starts changing color. There’s a lot of beauty there. I also love the beach and the forest. That’s a nice part of living in LA—there’s so many different natural elements around us within two hours.
LA is your home, but you moved here, like, ten years ago right?
I moved from Miami in about 2012, so I’ve been here for 9 and a half years. I originally lived here for my career, because the art scene is better in LA and mixing it up a bit. Also, there were a lot of other artists that have the same energy, in having that same energy, are trying to push the future forward. I love it for that reason, and the nature, which is always beautiful. It’s such a beautiful environment, besides the traffic.
You mention your peers. What sort of characteristics do you think you all possess?
Contemporary art, for sure, and my peers thinking outside of the box, or making TV shows, working with brands. People are trying to push the envelope. It’s an exciting time, and a lot of like-minded creative people are magnetized to LA and moved here around the same time.
You mention certain artists collaborating with brands. I feel that a lot of the stigma attached to brand-driven work has lifted in recent years. Would you agree?
I think so, yeah. Traditionally, the art world would put up their nose to corporate collabs, and stepping outside the world of fine art as an outsider. I think the art world is realizing that artists can do and be everything and use all these different avenues, and it makes them stand out more if they do. It’s definitely more accepted.
I understand that a lot of people might ascribe the word or idea of ‘psychedelic’ to your work. How do you relate that idea in 2021?
In the beginning, I didn’t like when people used the word ‘psychedelic’ with my artwork, but now I kind of embrace it, because it is. It wasn’t my original intention—I was just emulating nature and getting some inspiration from that. Now I’m like, ‘ok’— it’s a word that’s a little more accepted and has a spiritual connotation, and I’m cool with that.
What do you feel is something you’ve learned about yourself over the course of the pandemic?
I’ve learned to settle and that I don’t have to be going, going, going. Taking time for me. It’s not that important to be at every event, going out all the time. COVID helped settle me and focus on my work more, and that’s been really good.
In the beginning, I didn’t feel creative at all, which I think everyone was trying to figure out if Armageddon was happening. But as COVID went on, I would go to the studio every day, and have focused studio time, and started getting more creative and came up with different avenues for my work to be on. Just a couple months ago, I discovered the whole NFT world, and that was wild. I heard about it and dove right into it—I was obsessed with it. I was trying to figure out everything I could about it within a month. I did, and that was a wild ride. It’s fun being in the digital world.
On the NFT topic—which, as I mentioned, was a driving reason we wanted to speak with you—what are your thoughts? It’s a wild ride right?
When people ask me what it was like, I tell them a rollercoaster. The awesome part is the community, and I’ve met so many crypto friends, like-minded people who support each other and help each other out. The high point was having someone buy my digital work, and that was wild, and I didn’t think that was possible. The next day, I’m thinking ‘It’s so public’ and feeling a little guilty. Two separate days—two separate feelings.
That’s a major aspect of NFTs, which can be very different from how a lot of conventional art sales go down—it’s all viewable and watchable. How does that feel?
There’s definitely plusses and minuses. It’s so cool that everything is out for sale, and you can see what work has gone for, and histories. It’s very transparent, but I’m very private with that kind of stuff. Everyone and their mother can click on it, and it makes it so open, and that was a little weird for me. It’s something to get used to in this new world.
Interestingly, the NFT boom came at a time when the art world was also having to make adjustments to accommodate closures—like with online viewing rooms and so forth. What’s your take on the art world and how it will relate to the crypto space here forward?
It’s such a strange new world. I love it. There’s a bunch of crypto-collectors, and they’re collecting all of this work. Some of them are getting famous, because they’re collecting so much work. That’s an interesting part of it that I didn’t really think about. Sometimes the collectors are more famous than the artists they collect. Part of this world is that you can see everyone that’s bid on the work. And you can follow them, you can go to their Twitter page. That’s been one of the cool parts. Also I can directly DM my collectors, I can be on the phone with them. The middle man is cut out of the situation. It’s been nice to connect with them so easily. It’s a wild world. Some of these collectors have these crazy collections that are worth millions of dollars, and it’s all digital. It’s so wild to me.
Mental health has been a topic that it seems has become a lot less stigmatized in this period. What’s important for your mental health?
Especially during Covid, mental health is super important. It’s such a stressful time. A lot of anxiety. I love exercising. I do pilates, sometimes meditation. I try to be healthy, not drink too much, a lot of water. For me, exercise is my meditation, so that really helps my mental state. Trying to lower my stress. Although the last couple months have been a little more stressful, but I’m balancing it out.
And what sort of advice might you offer to young artists starting out?
I would say: focus on what you love. Keep going for it, keep going at it. There’s going to be haters. There’s going to be people that tell you you can’t do what you wanna do. People told me that, but I’m stubborn, and I just keep going. Luckily I didn’t listen to them. Keep going on your own path, and keep following your joy, and it’ll eventually create joy. Back to the garden, I like to think of it as planting seeds along the way. You’re planting seeds in your history, and eventually it’s going to grow into an amazing garden.
And let’s say you could offer advice to a younger Jen? Say a 15 year-old Jen. What might you offer?
I would tell myself to have more confidence. Young Jen was a little more shy and not as confident. The older I get, it keeps building and building, and I know what I want and just go for it. I would tell young Jen that she knows what she’s doing, keep it moving, keep that confidence up.
Yes, it feels like there are many platforms and means by which to feel confident as a young person these days, but also so many ways in which to lose confidence.
It’s pretty crazy nowadays. I grew up the 90s, so I didn’t have a cell phone until I was going off to college, like 18. And then it wasn’t the smartphones—it was just the Nokias. I’m kind of grateful that I wasn’t born during the age of the internet, because there’s so much competition, FOMO, cyberbullying. It’s pretty crazy. The youngsters growing up today have a lot more challenges in the social media stuff.
Outside of studio time, what have you been doing to stay inspired?
Just going out to art galleries now that they’re open and seeing what people have been making. That’s been a great inspiration. Also with the NFT world, and seeing how this new digital revolution has just blossomed in the last year, and especially the last couple of months.
Finally, what are you looking forward to?
Delving a bit more into the digital realm. I’m going to have an interactive projection installation in New York in September, in the city. So that will be fun. It’s going to be multiple rooms, people will be able to walk through and interact with my projections. It’ll have sound. I’m very excited about that. Otherwise, just still cranking artwork in my studio, making IRL paintings and sculptures, and just continuing my art practice and building it. It’s great.