When U.S. art critics discuss sites of provocative contemporary art practice, south Alabama is not often part of the conversation. But take any exit off an interstate in Alabama and you’re sure to find remarkable landscapes and towns filled with characters, secrets, complicated histories, and rich stories that deserve to be told. Jenny Fine knows this. Instead of distancing herself, she uses the complexities of Southern Alabama as inspiration to create.
Jenny grew up in the small town of Enterprise, Alabama. She fondly remembers summers spent hanging around her father’s feed store and pool parties at her grandmother Fine’s house. It’s grandmother Fine who has had the most profound influence over Jenny’s work. Grandmother Fine was a teacher and an artist who always included her grandchildren in her various projects.
“It wasn’t like ok, you’re being prepared to be an artist. It was just something I really liked doing.”
While Jenny always loved to create, being a full-time professional artist wasn’t initially the plan. It wasn’t until Jenny took mission trips to provide housing and aid, that she was able to see the world through a different lens. When she returned, she realized her lifelong passion could also be used to speak truth to power.
“For me, when I came back, I felt like everyone was making things so simple. I became really unsatisfied with the narratives being told.”
After graduating with her bachelor's degree from The University of Alabama, followed by her master's in fine arts from Ohio State, Jenny spent time outside of the South touring with projects, refining her talents, and as always, telling her stories. It wasn’t until a fateful trip back home that she realized she was ready to return to her roots.
“At the time I was living in Ohio and I came down on New Year’s Eve. My dad had overwatered the cotton and it grew too high for the combines and I decided I wanted to pick the excess for a project. And I had this incredible spiritual experience. The earth was telling me to come home.”
Jenny’s work doesn’t just feature subtle homage to her upbringing, it’s often the central focus. What makes Jenny’s art unique is her ability to use the material, and the metaphors, of her Southern experience to challenge traditional ideas of the South. Not content to simply photograph images, Jenny also creates movement and live action performances that immerse the audience in a world that is both sobering and whimsical.
As easy as it would be for Jenny to photograph bridal parties and beachy landscapes, her propensity to take Southern rituals and create bewitching and devastating allegory is nowhere more apparent than in one of her earliest projects, The Saddest Day. A series of black and white photographs featuring her muse, grandmother Fine, tell the story of the day her father and grandfather were forced to slaughter all of their swine.
The series combines subtle and uniquely Southern pastoral imagery with grandmother Fine’s striking charm, to create a dark retelling of the violent but necessary task in which her young father was forced to participate. Jenny was fascinated by the impact that day must have left on him as well as the duality of nurturing and caring for these animals only to have to eventually destroy them. With Jenny now in control of the narrative, she uses the actions of that day to represent her own experience with death and loss. Members of Jenny’s family, dressed in pig masks, capture and lead a reluctant grandmother Fine to her own inevitable demise. This would be grandmother Fine’s last living project with Jenny.
However, Jenny did not let the death of grandmother Fine stop her from continuing to collaborate with her. Instead, Jenny created her signature “Flat Granny” piece, a cardboard composite of different photographs taken of grandmother Fine, pieced together to create an interactive model that Jenny places in every project.
A grandmother Fine reemerged in only two-dimensions, as Jenny began exploring beyond the flat surface of photography, and started creating interactive immersive experiences.
Jenny’s installation/performance piece “A Procession in My Mind,” was inspired by grandmother Fine’s 1968 Woman of the Year award. The piece encapsulates the absurd and performative roles of white Southern women in the '60s. The interactive cyclorama features Jenny’s signature style of using common and routine Southern imagery in unusual and sometimes unseemly ways to highlight and even poke fun at propriety and hypocrisy. She creates a truly magical world in which one could easily lose themselves were it not for the subtle reminders of the grotesque that coexists with beauty and fragility. The piece features live actors in various poses, adorned in vivid colors and fanciful costumes. A backdrop with a panoramic picture of blue sky covered cotton fields surrounds the scene. A pastel-clad, smiling grandmother Fine character waves to the adoring crowd atop a mound of cotton. A girl on the other side cradles a giant Boll Weevil, a bug with its own statue in the center of Enterprise. A reminder that we credit a pest invasion with the discovery of alternative crops, like peanuts, while ignoring George Washington Carver’s contribution and expertise. Just on the other side of the scene, a barefoot Black girl lays against the same white throne, a basket of cotton turned over on its side next to her.
Jenny identifies as a storyteller more than simply a visual artist and this designation gives her permission to explore and shift narrative, as seen in her most recent project, “In Unison.” What started out as a curiosity about her family’s cultural identity, soon turned into a larger observation on what belongs to us and how we got it in the first place.
While researching the origins of clogging for the project, Jenny initially operated under the assumption that this was a European folk dance brought over to the Americas and expanded upon by Appalachian mountain folk. But what she discovered is the dance is actually an amalgamation of European jigs, African buck dancing and the Cherokee stomp. Jenny had spent her entire life thinking this was a unique aspect to her culture and identity only to find out that it was likely a product of the tendency of those in power to take from others and claim them as their own. This realization not only changed the direction of the project, but inspired a slew of harder-to-answer questions about how she perceived her own intertwined histories. After seeing The National Memorial for Justice and Peace in Montgomery, she came to another harsh realization about the community that had created and inspired her.
“In my mind, my thinking was 'okay it’s sharecroppers that came to this area.' And then I was so strongly mistaken. After going to the lynching memorial and seeing that Enterprise had three named victims, you just see this narrative crumbling around you. This history is here and we should tell it, we should talk about it.”
The bell cannot be unrung in Jenny’s mind, nor will it likely remain ignored in her work. While still telling stories, she now sets her sights on truth and accountability. She wants to acknowledge the trauma by putting it on full display. Her work has always attempted to disrupt the stasis of Southern propriety and she shows no signs of slowing down.
You can find all of Jenny’s works on her website at jennyfine.com or follow her on Instagram @fannieamericus.