Grinnell Artists: Jeremy Chen


Evan Hein

Professor of Studio Art and Chair of American Studies Jeremy Chen.

Oliver Wolfe, Staff Writer

If you stroll into the Grinnell College Museum of Art any day between now and April 8, you will be greeted by a diverse collection of things. Among these — a suitcase with a round hole cut through the middle, a cement block suspended on a spring hanging from the ceiling, a pile of clocks. There are some everyday items displayed in a decidedly not everyday way and some unorthodox materials that are intricately organized in the space, uniquely lighted and intentionally positioned to stimulate deep thoughts and feelings about our interaction with the world around us.

The aptly named “Devices, Tools, Objects, and Props” is the latest exhibit of work by Grinnell College’s Chair of American studies and assistant professor of studio art, Jeremy Chen.

Chen said that he has been interested in art for as long as he can remember, but he has a unique definition of the word “art.” “Everyone starts out interested in art,” Chen said. “We do stuff where we see what happens when we drag a stick though the mud or when we push our food around a plate.”

As Chen got a bit older, he became more interested in art in the more traditional sense of the word, and he used his art as a way to continue his exploration of the world around him. “There was a time where I liked drawing, painting and building stuff with materials I could find outside or at home,” Chen said.

In high school, Chen started making stop-motion animation. Chen cited this interest in film as an important step in his development as an artist. “I’d always liked art classes, but I was just really interested in what, at that time, was this new thing called ‘video.’”

Hoping to continue his work with video, Chen began his studies at the University of Iowa. However, it was hard for underclassmen to get a spot in film classes, which forced a change of plans for Chen. “I started taking art classes just to get access to video,” Chen said with a chuckle.

This was the moment Chen realized that he had a serious passion for art. “[The things that] people are doing with art is making me think in such different ways,” Chen remembered thinking. Chen ultimately finished his undergraduate degree with a Master of Fine Arts in printmaking and a sculpture minor.

Nowadays, Chen has kept the approach he learned during his education in the Intermedia Program at Iowa — his art extends beyond any single form or medium. “I’m interested in lots of media because each media has its own language. What is the right media for what my question is?”

For “Devices, Tools, Objects, and Props,” Chen opted for a series of three-dimensional sculptural artworks to answer his recent query. “I’m wondering about how humans need objects and things, devices, tools, technologies, and how those things need us. I’m curious about that relationship.”

When it comes to creating art, Chen does not have a step-by-step process. “At my studio, I just start to collect things that resonate with something I’m thinking about, and some things do sit around for a long time.”

Chen highlighted the importance of Grinnell’s liberal arts environment for creating. “I think the beauty of where we are […] is that it’s encouraging us to be our whole selves,” he said. “You can sing acapella, play ultimate frisbee, you can take a music lesson, you can crank out some linear algebra.”

Chen went on to say that his art can be inspired by anything, including his work in the American studiesdepartment. “These ideas don’t come out of a separation of life or a vacuum. They relate to personal things, intellectual ideas, current events or history.”

Chen encourages anyone to explore his exhibition. “I would love it if people would just come in and experience the objects in the space. And hopefully, if they spend a little time, it will evoke something with them.” Chen also reflected on the meditative process that pondering art can give, saying, “I hope this slows us all down a bit.”

“Devices, Tools, Objects, and Props” opened on Friday, Jan. 27 at the Grinnell College Museum of Art, where it will remain through April 8. Additional programming related to the exhibition includes a 20-minute conversation with Jeremy Chen on Tuesday, Feb. 14 at 11 a.m.; “Useless Work: A Short Performance” on Friday, Feb. 24 at 4 p.m.; “Human and Thing Entanglements: A Short Performance” on Friday, March 3 at 7 p.m.; and a concluding performance by the MIYUMI Project on Saturday, April 8 at 7 p.m.