Jen DeNike’s photo and video works sit somewhere between portraits, stereotypes and archetypes. The works belie their apparent simplicity by revealing themselves to be highly staged. Recent works concentrate on the rituals and emotive physical states of adolescence: powerplay, sexuality, initiation, vulnerability, latent aggression and detachment are fused into powerfully evocative images. This power has been charged still further in a body of recent work by the use of the American flag.
Jen DeNike searches out bucolic locations and local inhabitants to create telling pictures of lost innocence. In a work titled Mike and Kevin, 2006 (above), DeNike captures an ‘ordinary scene’ in rural New York: a clapboard white house adorned with an American flag. Two teenage boys sit out front, it seems like the moment before or after an event. The setting exudes a heartfelt patriotism, except for the upside down flag, seemingly a gesture of opposition but rendered ambiguous by also being layered with the official flag symbolism in which it is a sign of distress, an SOS.
This is one example of a new body of photographic and video work using the image of the American flag as a vernacular yet highly charged object, in conjunction with images of adolescence. In a new video piece Flag Girls, DeNike recreates the scene from a period postcard in which teenage girls are wrapped in ‘Old Glory’ – the Betsy Johnson confederacy American flag – on a stage as if part of a theatrical performance. In an opposite impetus to the photographs which imply a still moment before or after an event, in this video DeNike has followed through a hypothesised action from the archival still image.
DeNike’s practice is akin to a sophisticated form of semaphore – a visual language based on codes, rules, physicality and legibility which is at the same time influenced and complicated by geography, physical conditions and the contingencies of place and time so prevents itself from approaching an archetype of americana which remains out of reach.