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Torrey Pines High School graduate sees bright career future in world of art

Alex Jen. Photo courtesy Andrew Rhee
“Sad Bag (Pillow)” by artist Audrey Hope will be featured in “Hide and Seek: Exploring the Abstract,” an exhibit curated by 2015 Torrey Pines High School graduate Alex Jen. The show launches June 27 at the Woodbury University School of Architecture in San Diego. Photo courtesy Grace Bruton
“Sad Bag (Pillow)” by artist Audrey Hope will be featured in “Hide and Seek: Exploring the Abstract,” an exhibit curated by 2015 Torrey Pines High School graduate Alex Jen. The show launches June 27 at the Woodbury University School of Architecture in San Diego. Photo courtesy Grace Bruton

Alex Jen, a 2015 Torrey Pines High School graduate, has been relentless in his pursuit of a career in the art world, crafting his own art education using the promising connections he has made.

Alex wanted to learn curating in preparation for a degree in art history. So he emailed the education department at the Museum of Contemporary Art 26 times over the course of five months to land an internship that didn’t really exist.

His persistence and drive earned him the internship in 2013, and he has been there ever since — moving into a position in advancement. There the 17-year-old has learned about grant writing, fundraising and corporate sponsorship. He’s learning not only about the paintings on the wall but how to keep the paintings on the wall — the business behind a museum.

Not satisfied with just learning, he wanted to curate, assigning himself a senior project to host his own art show.

“I wanted to do a project that featured San Diego artists and have my first try at curating a show and what I was going to be getting into at college,” Alex said.

Alex curated his first show, “PROCESS,” in February, a collection of sketches and small works at the Athenaeum Music and Arts Library in La Jolla. His second, more ambitious show, “Hide and Seek: Exploring the Abstract,” launches June 27 at the Woodbury University School of Architecture in San Diego.

“Hide and Seek” features UC San Diego master of fine arts degree candidates Tanya Brodsky, Audrey Hope, Kara Joslyn and Patrick Shields; Columbia University bachelor of fine arts degree candidate Cheeyeon; and Jamie Derringer, founder and executive director of Design Milk, an online magazine dedicated to art and design.

The opening will be from 6-9 p.m. and will feature live music from the bands Paper Days and Freshmen.

Not an artist himself, Alex loves reading and writing about art, visiting museums and discovering new artists. In addition to his internship at MOCA, he also recently finished a yearlong internship at Quint Gallery in La Jolla.

Last summer, Alex participated in the Pacific Arts Movement’s Reel Voices program, a 12-week summer internship to help students learn about film production and how to become socially conscious storytellers. His film, “This Is Not a Pipe Dream: Asians Breaking Into the Arts,” premiered at the San Diego Asian Film Festival and was nominated for a San Diego County of Education Innovative Video in Education award. The title is a riff on Rene Magritte’s “This Is Not a Pipe” painting, and the documentary deals with the pressure Asian artists feel about pursuing a career in the arts and ultimately how important it is for artists to follow their passions.

While at Torrey Pines, Alex was also the arts and entertainment editor of the Falconer school newspaper. He is able to list New York Times’ Pulitzer Prize-winning art critic Holland Cotter as a mentor after a chance encounter at the Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston. Alex was there with the Asian American Journalists Association’s J Camp, and he recognized Cotter. The pair began corresponding, with Cotter offering critiques of Alex’s work.

“Curating is almost like storytelling, like journalism; there’s a story that goes through the exhibit, and people feel and see it,” Alex said.

His first show, at the Athenaeum, was in a very small space: between bookcases at the library.

He learned that he needed to “cater the art to the space you’re in” and to really think about the works that could fill it. He focused on sketches and small works of three artists, Cheeyeon (whom he had interviewed for his documentary) and high school artists Anna Huang and Claire Kwon.

“It inspired me to go bigger for my next show,” said Alex, who began planning “Hide and Seek” in November.

To hand-pick his featured artists, Alex attended the UCSD Open Studios show in March, and looked at all of the MFA candidates’ works online. He singled out the ones he liked and emailed them about his show, scheduling studio visits and learning more about the artists and their works.

Alex drew inspiration for the show from Forrest McGill’s “Gorgeous” exhibit at the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco, the summer before his senior year. The exhibit featured the unusual pairing of ancient art and contemporary art and emphasized the ways a work grabs a viewer’s attention. Alex said the exhibit was influential — more about people’s reactions to art, and how people look and think about what they are seeing.

With “Hide and Seek,” Alex said he wants to focus on artists’ original abstractions, “re-emphasize the links abstraction has held with an artist’s intuition and experimentation,” and the decisions they make to express them.

“I wanted to bring it back to my first experience with art, which is seeing and looking,” said Alex, who wrote all of the wall texts to accompany the pieces. The wall text, he said, “focuses on materiality, what the art is made out of instead of heavy-based theory. Not to discredit theory, but I’m interested in what the artist wants to say and what I want to say as a curator.”

He developed a 20-page booklet to accompany the show, designed and photographed by Grace Bruton, a Falconer staff photographer. The booklet features artist biographies and photos of their works. Because Alex didn’t want anything to stop people from attending his show, he arranged for the booklets to be printed for free, covered by Charlie Affourtit of the Stephen Gould Corporation.

The space at Woodbury used to be a factory, now repurposed as a 30-foot-by-50-foot gallery space with 14-foot-tall ceilings. The space is huge compared with his last setting, so he had Canyon Crest Academy student Joseph Hwang help him build a scale model maquette with the artworks on Velcro so he could map out how he wanted the exhibit to look. He will be doing the installation on June 20 with help from Drei Kiel, an art handler from the Quint Gallery.

The opportunity to show at Woodbury was made possible by a connection with Miki Iwasaki, an architect he interviewed for his documentary.

All of Alex’s art connections have been made in just a short time by a high school student motivated by the “What’s your backup plan?” question he is asked when he tells people he wants to study art history. Persistence, he said, is the only way he knows to get what he wants.

“There’s so much to learn,” said Alex, who will attend Williams University in the fall with an economics double major. “My end goal is to do something in the arts.”

This is likely not a pipe dream.

“Hide and Seek” will remain open for three weeks after the June 27 opening with viewings by appointment only. To schedule an appointment, email ajen@mcasd.org.


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