Carolyn Janssen and the Digital Sublime

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Massive Failure. 64 x 126 in. © Carolyn Janssen.


The grandiose cyber-scapes of California artist Carolyn Janssen colorize a new approach to the sublime. Her mountains, vistas and gullies created from hundreds of images- obfuscated and re-mixed- are populated with hordes of female figures singing in harmony, piled atop one another, and engaging in alien cultural customs. From a wide spectrum of influences, ranging from pre-modern to contemporary visionaries, Janssen creates a world unto her own. A digital mess where her own form runs free in a bizarre and beautiful fantasy world.


Gregory Jones: First off Carolyn, what drew you into photography initially, and who were among your earliest influences?

Carolyn Janssen: While contemporary photography provides a critical location for my work, my earliest influences were painters. Intrigued by the morality painting of Hieronymous Bosch and Bruegel the Elder, the landscapes of the Hudson River School, and the world-building of Henry Darger and Paul Noble, I was drawn to images of vast, complicated mythic worlds. In graduate school, I began to re-contextualize these historic tropes—particularly religious painting and epic landscapes—by subverting the materiality (going digital instead of offering the aura of paint) and by populating the stories with packs of digital clone women. Photography and Photoshop offered the most fluent and materially compelling platform to do so.

Since then, photographers Andreas Gursky and Justine Kurland have been influential for me, and I am particularly excited by the work of Debbie Grossman, Polly Borland and Lydia Anne McCarthy. I really love contemporary photography’s current relationship to painting, performance and sculpture; this blurring of traditional approaches offers room for great conceptual play.


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Detail from Massive Failure. © Carolyn Janssen.


GJ: Your work primarily consists of landscapes build up through digital construction, and personal photographs are incorporated in such a way as to create narratives within these scenes. Talk about your process of assembling these pictures. Why choose personal photographs?

CJ: Personal photographs provide creative freedom, but also offer interesting conceptual fodder. Digital kitsch and social media platforms are big influences for me, two places where the personal photograph reigns supreme. We are the “selfie generation,” perpetually documenting ourselves, propping-up our personal brands and creating idealized fantasies. My work definitely examines our (and my own) contemporary use of technology to design sublime personal representations.

In that sense, it’s important that I use pictures from my personal context. I intentionally take mundane snapshots and absurdly process, saturate, abuse and “anoint” them to achieve this hyper-superficial, aesthetic surface pleasure. I find this kind of over-the-top polishing and “photo-shopping” to be both revolting and alluring, which I honestly love. I use these self-portraits like action figures or video game characters to design narratives.

As for my process, I take snapshots of whatever I find appealing as I travel about. I’ve amassed hundreds of pictures of ornately manicured bushes, weird rotting fruit, and piles of bricks. Additionally, I make small, complex sculptures out of food, plants, ice and fire. The temporary nature of these sculptures interests me, especially in their contrast to their permanent final portraits. They feel like altars to the present moment, and point to the performative nature of my work.


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Small Baptism. 60 x 144 in. © Carolyn Janssen.


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Detail from Small Baptism. © Carolyn Janssen.


GJ: These images can be described simply as digital potpourri, which is a style we’ve been seeing more of over the past few years. It’s interesting to me how digital kitsch has come to represent a type of dystopian attitude; perhaps towards public life, or perhaps about picture-making itself. Does this sentiment resonate with you? Are there other common themes emerging from this aesthetic that you’ve recognized?

CJ: I love digital kitsch and see it as a wonderful, beautiful thing. It has a certain sense of humor, earnestness and efficiency that I find endearing and fun. The history of the aesthetic is also amazing. As I understand it, it evolved in the mid-90s with the introduction of AOL as new users began to add content to the Internet. Unaware of the “correct” way to make elegant digital material, a clunky aesthetic evolved that has come to influence both high design and art. Now digital kitsch has even come to be a critical tool in social and political commentary; the Binders Full of Women and Feminist Ryan Gosling memes come to mind.

Taking on digital kitsch feels like a very honest way for me to use Photoshop. As I am working, I really try to exploit and utilize the “photoshoppy-ness” of the program, the same way a painter might exploit the inherent qualities of paint. Gradients, blurs, copy and paste are all fluent metaphors in our contemporary visual language, and I am excited to witness their long-term influence.

That said, the artificiality of digital kitsch can feel emotionally flat, which is maybe what you are getting at. It can contain an ironic, detached sarcasm, which legitimately critiques our culture’s obsession with surface. In that sense, I love that artists are essentially borrowing the “secret” strategies of CGI, fashion retouching, and advertising in order to deconstruct our culture’s attachment to digital glitter.


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Yonder Eternal. 64 x 168 in. © Carolyn Janssen.


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Detail from Yonder Eternal. © Carolyn Janssen.


GJ: The figures in these pictures read to me as biblical in a sense; as characters in a post-apocalyptic land, or as pioneers of a new society forming new cultural customs. It should be noted that the characters are all women, presumably self-portraits. They seem alien to me, even in this alien world you’ve made. What is their role in these environments? To what extent are they meant to reflect your own self?

CJ: I am fascinated by how art has historically dictated philosophies of belief—Greek Orthodox icons to Star Trek: Next Generation to Buddhist devotional painting. Art, literature, and film are powerful ways of expressing utopian visions of how to live; I love that basic visual concepts—like mood, color, and content—all convert to become effective tools to influence ideals.

My work takes on these strategies in attempt to deconstruct and humorously observe these strategies and tropes. I project my own kooky cosmology and design my own epic narratives based on my experiences. I use the work as an opportunity to create my own morality paintings, my own science fiction fantasies, complete with references to Lisa Frank, girl Tumblr blogs, feminism, and our digitally expressed lives. They reference the video games, movies and religious art I’ve digested, and reveal a perhaps sincere desire to create and live in my own complex, mythic universe.

I am specifically interested in the ways we have historically told stories about women. Often in these epic narratives and traditional tropes, women are kept to the sidelines, are stereotyped or are just completely absent. I am curious about providing a world where all the villains, heroes, anti-heroes, victims, demons, angels, damsels in distress and monsters are women. Just to see what happens…


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Prescience. 64 x 126 in. © Carolyn Janssen.


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Detail from Prescience. © Carolyn Janssen.


GJ: Your work tackles ideas of the sublime; doing so by the sheer amount of visual information you provide, as well as through the large scale of your prints. These are techniques found widely throughout the pictorial tradition, from Albert Bierstadt and all the old pre-modern Landscape masters, to contemporaries such as Gursky and Beate Gutschow. Where does your interest lie in the sublime? Is it the experience itself, or is it the tradition you are harking back to? And do you think addressing the sublime through digital imagery makes your work more relevant to today’s viewers than past grandiose paintings?

CJ: I take on the sublime because I am such a sucker for it. I love epic, beautiful, huge depictions of gorgeous landscapes, from Bierstadt to those perfect desktop images of beaches found online. Ultimately, I am intrigued by the sense of longing these images evoke for something not really there. Our human relationship to desire fascinates me, as well as the disappointment that kicks in when we eventually realize the image isn’t really what we are longing for. That whole journey from desire and longing to disappointment intrigues me.

It’s one reason I choose to make my work as candy-coated and visually seductive as possible—to incite that allure, but then disappoint. I am interested in the tension of allure created by using digital pixels instead of the aura of paint, by making beautiful landscapes out of artificial objects and garbage, and by presenting characters that can be uncomfortable.


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Neutropia. 32 x 64 in. © Carolyn Janssen.


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Detail from Neutropia. © Carolyn Janssen.


GJ: Last but not least, what’s coming up for you over the next year, photographically or otherwise? Do you plan to continue working in this vein?

CJ: Absolutely. I have many more ideas that I look forward to exploring with this work. I currently have a solo show titled Small Baptism at the Julie Saul Gallery, which is also featuring a solo show by Nikolay Bakharev. This fall, I will be showing with the Julie Saul Gallery at the Unseen Photo Fair in Amsterdam, and as part of a two-person show at Lump Gallery in Raleigh, North Carolina with Lee Delegard. I also plan to work more in sculpture and video. Stay tuned!


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Installation of Massive Failure. From the exhibition, Currents. Currently on view at CAM Raleigh.



Carolyn Janssen is a California-based artist that creates digital phantasmagoric landscapes. She received her BFA from the Rhode Island School of Design and her MFA from the University of North Carolina- Chapel Hill.  Janssen has recently exhibited at the Julie Saul Gallery, CAM Raleigh, and the North Carolina Museum of Art. Her work has been featured in Beautiful/Decay Book 9: Seven Deadly Sins and Womenzine.


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Interview by Gregory Jones.

All Images © Carolyn Janssen.

Special thank you to the Julie Saul Gallery