By VITTORIA BENZINE October, 2021
Sometimes artists sense the need to temper their more difficult emotions to achieve commercial success. Mass media is a numbers game—polished and simplified to avoid the risk of alienating potential audience members by emoting in an unpackaged fashion. Fortified by diligent time spent courting her own genuine angst, Chicago-based artist Jenny Vyas is at work developing a painting practice that blends strife with sensuality, precision with the paint’s independent mind, all in service to others through her own struggles.
On September 16th, Vyas celebrated the opening of her third solo exhibition, AWAKEN, presented by Artist Replete in collaboration with the Muslim American Leadership Alliance (MALA.) On view at Pilsen Yards on Chicago’s South Side through the end of October, AWAKEN exhibits 15 canvases crafted in studious silence and sobriety during marathon studio sessions over the past few months.
The self-taught creative moved to the US from Gujarat, India at age 19 and embarked upon a 15 year career in marketing for the likes of Oprah’s Harpo Studios. As a grown woman, Vyas suffered a painstaking romantic heartbreak, the type of emotional cataclysm like Haley’s Comet—it only comes once or twice in a lifetime.
Vyas leaned into the celestial occurrence, confronting her most menacing shadows and untangling the deepest lain roots to her toxic patterns. During this dive, she heard a calling loud and clear to become an artist. Although she had no formal training, Vyas took a leap on that calling, setting aside an entire year to teach herself the foundations for her own craft. Fueled by the desire to share and heal others through her own survival, Vyas began painting live at charity events, chasing down mural opportunities, defying the odds facing women of color in the art world with no connections by building her own following brick by harrowing brick.
Gallery openings are the place where the work meets the people. In general culture, the idea of a gallery reception still sits shrouded in exclusivity and intimidation, albeit with its own brand of allure. “I've been to art shows,” Vyas told me over Zoom. “They’ve felt very sterile to me.”
While some civilians do admit a measure of trepidation in entering the whitewalled space, gallery openings are oftentimes raucous affairs—shoving through drink lines at an opening in TriBeCa, trading joints and cigarettes amongst colleagues outside galleries on the Lower East Side. Generally, even the most esteemed arts professionals enjoy (and know how to have) a good time. Still, despite the undeniable camaraderie, most gallery openings are populated by industry folks. They are the attendees most comfortable being there.
Since the beginning of her career, Vyas has set out to alter old narratives with new approaches. “I'm self taught, so I can break all the rules that never existed for me,” she said. “I think one of the biggest, first rules I wanted to break was these conventional art shows.”
AWAKEN followed in the footsteps of the artist’s first two shows, RISE and PURGE. Both took place at Fulton Market Kitchen, an unorthodox setup not explicitly built for art exhibitions but benefiting from constant foot traffic as a community meeting place and anchor. In addition to sharing in-person canvases for Vyas’s avid legions of Instagram followers, both of these exhibitions featured cross-medium performances—a ballet dancer bringing each show’s centerpiece artwork to life with movement. Both also featured talks from Vyas herself, along with staggering turnout, enthusiasm, and sales for an artist at her level of development.
“I think that’s where my true following for my work started,” Vyas explained of these first two forays. “I actually did not know that I had that deep of a following until I had those events.”
A robust crowd of nearly 600 attendees cycled through AWAKEN’s four hour opening reception last month. To supplement her artworks and the venue’s extensive libations, Vyas invited world renowned violinist Damien Escobar for an intimate set commemorating the painstaking emotionality she pumped into this body of work. Escobar chartered a plane from NYC for a single night to step outside his standard PAC circuit and perform hits like “Awaken,” which inspired Vyas’s work for this show. Between songs, the pair shared an authentic conversation for onlookers where Escobar divulged his own rocky path to peace, which started with immediate superstardom followed by homelessness and eventual re-emergence.
That ever-echoing life-death-life cycle drove Vyas to take up painting in the first place—not for her sole love of the medium, but as a tool to share her firsthand knowledge about destruction’s healing role as generative force. When I spoke with guests at AWAKEN’s opening, I noticed that unlike a typical reception, this was no networking event. Artists were actually in the minority. Instead, most of the attendees I met had gone through similar dark nights of the soul like Vyas and Escobar, and had leaned on the strength and gumption of Vyas's persona to survive.
“It's a party,” Vyas explained. “It's not so much about networking, it’s more about finding this community of creative people who are not just artists, but also people who are interested in emotional healing through creative arts.” Although she didn’t catch even one moment of quietude amongst the constant barrage of photos and congratulations from her plentiful fans, Vyas emphasized that her exhibition model removes the artist from their pedestal and places attendees at the center. Sure, she sells work, but forging found family drives the occasion. Vyas shares her story through this work with a fervent desire to heal others. Fans show up for her raw emotionality, even though earnestness is always a risk.
“That's the artist I want to be,” Vyas concluded. “I want people to reach out to me and connect with me because it's almost therapeutic, the way I approach my work for myself. If connection extends that therapeutic feeling to someone, especially my collectors, I think it's a form of service that I owe to the world.” Vyas might be the star of her shows when they take shape, but they’re rarely for her—or even the work alone. According to the artist’s theory, her openings awaken to a new model that courts viewers just as the artist once went to her own pain. WM
Vittoria Benzine is a street art journalist and personal essayist based in Brooklyn, New York. Her affinity for counterculture and questioning has introduced her to exceptional artists and morally ambiguous characters alike. She values writing as a method of processing the world’s complexity. Send love letters to her via: @vittoriabenzine // email@example.com // vittoriabenzine.com
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