Art

An Artist Carefully Catalogues His Late Mother’s Possessions

Nick Flessa lays bare the possessions of his mother for the world to see, as they become both an index of her life story and her son’s grief.

Installation view of Death Production: The Archive of Janna Flessa at Los Angeles Contemporary Archive (photo courtesy Nick Flessa)

LOS ANGELES — Artist, archivist, and son Nick Flessa has carefully catalogued and methodically organized the items from his deceased mother’s life. At the Los Angeles Contemporary Archives he lays bare the possessions of his mother, Janna Flessa — a painter, poet, and former prosecutor — for the world to see, becoming both an index of her life story and her son’s grief.

When a person dies, the objects they once regularly used instantly transform in meaning and freeze in time. A soiled T-shirt placed on a bed and a mascara stick haphazardly left on the bathroom counter suddenly transmogrify into something akin to an irreplaceable treasure or evidence from a crime scene, rather than the banal, last-minute purchases from the local supermarket that they are. In one display case of the exhibition, titled Death Production: The Archive of Janna Flessa, two items are poignantly tragic: a makeup compact marked with the words “Age Rewind” and a book whose title reads I’d Change My Life if I Had More Time.

Installation view of Death Production: The Archive of Janna Flessa at Los Angeles Contemporary Archive (photo courtesy Nick Flessa)

Looking over the exhibition checklist list, I find that all the “artworks” are attributed to Janna Flessa and given specific titles, raising questions around authorship. Who really made this artwork, Janna or Nick Flessa? When Janna Flessa was alive, the age rewind compact was most likely never given much thought beyond its practical use. Perhaps she liked the way the creamy powder felt as she applied it to the surface of her deepening wrinkles or the way the shape and size of its packaging fit so neatly in her purse; now seen here, presented by her son in a display case in the wake of her untimely death, the object becomes poetically infused with a meaning it never had to her. Notably, Nick Flessa never refers to himself as an artist in the exhibition’s description, but instead uses the words “Executed by Nick Flessa” to describe his role — language more akin to an executor of an estate or will than that of a young, contemporary artist presenting artworks.

Janna Flessa, “RJ 1-6” (date unknown), dimensions variable, six running journals (photo courtesy Nick Flessa)

Nick Flessa says his intention was “to emphasize what was unspoken in the life of its subject: mental illness, spiritual fatigue and internalized self-destruction.” For many years, Janna Flessa kept a journal documenting her daily runs; the meticulous documentation borders on the obsessive and in many ways mirrors the compulsive nature of the archival act itself. One image, a picture of Janna Flessa running, has the words “Think positive, move forward” scrawled on either side of her body with corresponding arrows. We learn that she used running, as well as painting, as forms of therapy during her lifetime; one could easily say that the exhibition itself is evidence of her son coping with his grief over his mother’s death.

One particular item feels unfortunately underutilized: the court transcript of a death penalty case Janna Flessa helped successfully prosecute, which delivered a death sentence that was later overturned as unconstitutional. Shoved off to the side, this fascinating item is easy to miss, but offers a complex lens to the exhibition even in the first sentence, which comes across as cruelly ironic and darkly humorous in light of the archival objects that surround it. It reads, simply, “This is the physical evidence.”

Death Production: The Archive of Janna Flessa continues at the Los Angeles Contemporary Archive (709 N Hill St #104-108, Los Angeles) through March 10. 

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