Jo Phenneger is an artist tackling some heavy themes. “I present perspectives with a hyper-focus on sexism, trauma, power dynamics, and religion. My work challenges social conventions surrounding sensitive subject matter in public discourse, placing upon the audience the responsibility for critically evaluating provocations and propositions in the context of the topic presented,” she writes. When I first visited her studio, I noticed a table showcasing books and graphic design work. She explained that she started her MFA program as a Graphic Design major. Phenneger has a passion for bookmaking and typography but found the major creatively constraining. She elected to change her concentration to fine art, where she now works primarily in sculpture with the aim of expanding a personal visual language.
Her large-scale work “Colossal pissing contests of gods and men” is hard to miss. Ready-made mannequins of various sizes occupied much of the studio. Some figures (the ones resembling adult men) were dressed in religious garb, while others (figures of women and children) had been meticulously modified by the artist into kneeling prayer posses, their bodies nude and stained with paint. Phenneger combines these mannequins along with other found objects into an installation where both imagery and symbolism are an overt critique of Abrahamic religious structures. “...the conservative, patriarchal practices can be violent, demeaning, oppressive, and pathologically rigid,” says the artist.
Less overt and more abstract are her “Urban Portal” series of sculptures. Incorporating found wood, concrete, broken glass, and shale, these rigid forms appear fractured and splintered, seemingly suspended in time. Pheenger created these works in response to the duality of urban living. She was inspired by Barton Springs in Austin, a sort of natural oasis among the chaos of urban life. “Urban portals gives a glimpse of hope, fantasy, and breaking through the seemingly impossible rigidity that can move us unimaginable distances.” For the artists, these works act as “dream portals” ready to take her out of the urban world and back to nature. Some of these works even incorporate material from Phenneger’s home state of Ohio.
While her other sculptural installations were created from found and ready-made materials, Phenneger shared a glimpse into a new work that would be made using shaped wire and concrete. Small-scale models were accompanied by sketches and ideas for this in-progress tableau depicting a little girl among a field of flowers. The girl would resemble the prototype in her studio but would be created at a much larger scale. I was struck by the contrast between this work and the others. This new work had a much more handmade and almost child-like quality to it. Even in concrete, it felt softer, lighter, and less piercing.
We chatted a bit about her plans after graduation. Phenneger shared her hope to teach and inspire children through artmaking. She hopes to one day have a workshop where kids can learn and create in a supportive environment, where they can be messy, try new things, and work through fear. I found this idea quite noble and comforting. We could all probably benefit from a space like this.
This post is part of a series in collaboration with the 2023 UH MFA Exhibition at the Blaffer Museum of Art, and written in partnership with the London-based Curator Maribelle Bierens, founder of the online platform where's the frame?