The first time divine intervention struck, Jennifer Moon was in college.
The Korean American artist had been lounging on a lower-level bunk bed in a dingy student apartment on UCLA’s campus when she made a deal with a cosmic entity named Bob.
“I was like: ‘OK, Bob, if you just help me with my art, I will give up all romance.’ It felt like a good trade at the time,” she says on a recent afternoon in the courtyard of the Hammer Museum. “Since then, I’ve never been able to have both at the same time — it’s either ‘I’m in a relationship and don’t make any art’ or ‘I’m making art and can’t find love.’”
More than 20 years since sealing that deal, Moon, still single, is one of the breakout artists in the Hammer Museum’s “Made in L.A. 2014" biennial. Her installation of photographs, sculpture and text-based works is her attempt to nullify that deal with Bob, bridging the gap between art and romance so that she can finally find love as a working artist.
The exhibit — part self-help, part political activism and part fantasy, all threaded with humor — introduces viewers to “The Revolution.”
“The aim is a world where people are free to create, so they have to be free of survival needs like food, clothing, shelter and healthcare,” she says. “So that everyone has the opportunity to live rather than just survive.”
Which brings us to the second time divine intervention struck Moon: while she was serving time in prison for attempted armed robbery.
During art school at UCLA Moon developed a nasty drug habit. She was able to get her graduate degree from Pasadena’s Art Center and emerged as a promising artist. Her first solo show, in 1996, was at Richard Heller Gallery, and until 2002, when drugs overtook everything else in her life, she was a fixture in the L.A. art scene.
Strung out on heroin and crack, Moon and her then-boyfriend went on a crime spree that included attempting to rob people at ATM machines with pepper spray. They were captured after about two months. In 2008, she was sentenced to 18 months in the maximum-security Valley State Prison for Women.
"[Drugs] made the money go really fast,” Moon says. “I didn’t know how to function on my own, outside of family and institutions.”
Prison turned out to be an institution where Moon could thrive. She fell in love with another inmate and found a cohesive community.
“After a while I didn’t want to leave,” she says. “I definitely don’t believe in prison; I don’t think it works. But the culture that is created in there is very strong — this sense of belonging, the identity of being a prisoner. I’d see women paroled and come back; the recidivism rate is really high and I can see why. It’s easy to become someone important in prison.”
Moon isn’t a religious person — as a kid she’d rebelled against her Catholic upbringing — but behind bars she came to understand through the cosmic force she calls “the third communal entity or 3CE,” that ceding control, in life and her art, was the way to go. The constricting deal with Bob would have to change.
When Moon got out of prison in 2009, having served nine of her 18 months, and now sober, she created the Phoenix Rising Saga Series, a three-part installation marking her return to the art world. “I was gone for about 10 years,” she says. “I like the metaphor of death and rebirth.”
The first incarnation of the series was a 2012 show at the Koreatown artist-run space Commonwealth and Council. Moon displayed photographs of her personal prison relics — the typewriter she wrote love letters on, a disciplinary write-up she received for skipping work one day. And she wrote a book, “This Is Where I Learned of Love,” with commentary on each item. She also exhibited excerpts from letters she wrote in prison. The show traveled to Transmission Gallery in Glasgow, Scotland, in 2013.
The Hammer exhibit is Moon’s part two of the Phoenix Rising Saga Series. The small collection of works are all bathed in a patina of New Age and fantasy and are studded with personal and political references, not to mention a healthy dose of levity. In one large-format photograph, an ink jet print, Moon poses in a wicker chair, stalwart, wearing a militant expression and red beret; her fluffy, white Pomeranian, Mr. Snuggles, in a matching beret, cozies up by her feet. The image, “You Can Kill My Body, But You Can’t Kill My Soul,” is a nod to Huey P. Newton, co-founder of the Black Panthers.
“I wanted to place myself within that history of iconic revolutionaries,” Moon says.
Another self-portrait, a chromogenic digital photo collage called “A Story of a Girl and a Horse: The Search for Courage,” depicts Moon on a chocolate brown horse, leaping over a bed of clouds shot through with electricity, as if she were riding a flying Unicorn. Elsewhere, a giant fiberglass egg sculpture houses a mountainous, apocalyptic-looking world that teems with tiny figurines made from 3-D modeling. Among them: Moon and Mr. Snuggles, wings on their backs, balancing on the precipice of a cliff.
Perhaps the most personal work is “The Book of Eros.” Its thick pages, made from hand-pounded tree bark, are modeled off the Dungeons & Dragons monster manual. In it, Moon lays out a chronological compendium “of all the people that I’ve ever obsessed over, had a crush on, had sex with, tried to have sex with, or made out with since I made that deal with the cosmic entity in ’93.”
Also on display are stacks of pamphlets in which Moon has printed the first principle of her manifesto for The Revolution, “Definition of Abundance.”
“I want it to be both art and real,” Moon says of her Revolution. “I think what’s missing in political activism are those aspects of fantasy and playfulness, which I’m hoping to embody with The Revolution. Because that’s how things enter, that’s how things change.”
“Jennifer’s objects in ‘Made in L.A.’ are exquisite and speak to her gifts as an artist,” exhibition co-curator Michael Ned Holte says. “But they’re also the result of her self-interrogation and represent her willingness to bring past relationships, self-doubt, fantasy and speculation into the space of art-making. Her notions of revolution are always grounded in the personal and a very evolving sense self.”
Moon is currently creating the third part of the Phoenix Rising Saga Series, a live performance during which she plans to sing “about letting go and the death of self” on a rooftop, then leap off, in wire rigging, into the crowd.
A longtime DJ at KChung Radio, where she broadcasts the monthly talk show, “Adventures Within,” covering topics such as race, body image and prison, Moon will host her first KChung TV show on Aug. 16 from the lobby of the Hammer.
The hourlong, live Web TV episode will feature Holte as well as Moon’s friend and life coach, Michael Blomsterberg, discussing the concepts of revolution and love.
“It fits perfectly with faction two of The Revolution: ‘creating a political pop culture,’” Moon says, “and utilizing this kind of mass media to do that.”
Moon also has a public art project in the works, which will go up in December in the lobby of a Koreatown office building on Wilshire Boulevard. Artist Ellie Lee, who’s coordinating the project, has asked Moon to fill two Plexiglas display cases with whatever she wants.
What might that be?
“I don’t know!” she squeals, with a trace of anxiety. But the fear soon evaporates. “That’s where the 3CE comes in, I just have to trust. Making art since prison feels very different; I don’t worry so much anymore. I have a lot of faith — in art and in life.”