In Jen Clay’s universe, nothing is quite what it seems. Her creativity thrives in the gap between real and imagined worlds. The multimedia artist explores that tension in Nearing, a multidisciplinary performance taking place Saturday, June 3, at ArtServe in Fort Lauderdale. It's the third of four events courtesy of the Girls' Club series Offsite Performances, which presents the work of local female artists in nontraditional locations.
Common horror entertainment tropes, as well as children’s edutainment TV shows, inform the colorful, surreal and often unsettling amorphous figures in Clay’s work, which conveys a hallucinatory sense of reality underscored by fear and anxiety.
The artist likes to dig deep into everyday objects, and what she discovers often shores up in weird, fanciful shapes. In 2015, for example, she projected the imagined insides and molecular makeup of buildings onto their façades, which made the seemingly inanimate structures come alive, evoking the unnerving feeling of the familiar unfamiliar.
Turning to the uncanny and the fantastic fits Clay’s upbringing. The North Carolina native grew up in a rural community where she relied on a vivid imagination to make sense of some dark, emotionally difficult childhood moments. As an impressionable child, she also tuned into natural surroundings and local culture, which influence the subject matter of Nearing.
“In North Carolina, we have the Brown Mountain Lights phenomenon,” she explains. “Scientists think it’s just gas, but people see these lights at night that go through the trees. People are open to ghost stories, alien abduction stories. ‘Did I really just see this?’ is a feeling you get.”
Clay also grew up listening to a neighbor who told tales about the Mothman, a 1960’s West Virginia folk legend about a “giant owl with quivering eyes” that “really affected people’s lives.”
“It was so rural and so quiet,” she says. “It seemed that the natural was supernatural. I’m attracted to that feeling of that dissonant experience that you can’t categorize, that unknown when you’re creeped out by something but also attracted. I’m obsessed with re-creating those scenarios that are ambiguous.”
Fueled by scary narratives, Clay turned inwardly to cope with childhood trauma, and the mechanism informs her work today. “I like to talk about indicators of dysfunction,” she says, “when you see something happen and it doesn’t fit into everything else, when everything was seemingly safe and it wasn’t. I like to interrupt mundane life.”
Clay also grew up watching Sesame Street, which inspired flights of fancy in the artist's imagination. “I like tapping into that group memory of being entertained and educated through overly embellished puppets and claymation,” she says. “I love that aesthetic. I’m recombining odd things I’d see that were similar to Sesame Street creatures.”
Clay, 32, became a mom at the age of 19 and enjoyed watching popular edutainment programs with her daughter such as Yo Gabba Gabba and Teletubbies, which feature puppets and brightly colored creatures in bulbous shapes, respectively.
For Clay, there's also a sinister vibe in the playful, cutesy imagery of the shows. “When I was a kid, I was interested in the same things, but I was also always interested in scenarios when someone is confronted with the unknown.”
Nearing, as the title implies, explores that pivotal moment when something unknown is about to happen. Large-scale puppets, performative sculpture, stop-motion animation, and Elise Anderson’s “extraterrestrial” soundscape re-create the frisson of fear.
The completely immersive experience is set up like a haunted house. During the performance, the otherworldly creatures interact with the audience through an “obsession dialogue” with "unhuman voices" that Clay hopes will be a “little haunting” to the audience.
“There’s a feeling of anticipation like something else is going to happen before it does,” she says. “It’s connected to anxiety. People might think back on it and try to resolve what happened.”
Although adult themes persist, the free event is appropriate for all ages. Nearing also features a limited-edition artist book screen-printed by IS Projects that's available for purchase. The book includes interactive elements, pull-out tabs, and pop-open doors.