John Hughes, eat your heart out 

Jennifer Leutzinger peels back the layers of adolescent angst for Landslide in My Ego

There was one glorious week in fifth grade when Jennifer Leutzinger was friends with the most popular girl in school. They ate lunch together every day and Leutzinger recalls feeling elated—here she was, a self-described shy and mousy girl finally getting noticed by one of the elite. Things were going to change for the better, she thought. On the last day, Friday, the popular girl brought a Ho Ho cupcake in her lunch and the two girls shared it.

"I thought that was the greatest thing ever," Leutzinger says with mock tween enthusiasm. "And then, come Monday, she totally ignored me. Turns out she was just using me to make someone else mad. Later, of course, she ended up becoming the homecoming queen."

Leutzinger has immortalized the Ho Ho week and several other painful, funny and nostalgic memories from her adolescent years in a new exhibit at The Brink Gallery called Landslide in My Ego. A Ho Ho covered in gold paint hangs like a monument inside a "Knight Rider" lunchbox. Old record covers—Culture Club, Michael Jackson, Air Supply, Cheap Trick—have been fastened together to create a carpet on which viewers are encouraged to walk. Also scattered on the floor are large replicas of Leutzinger's diary entries noting boys she had crushes on as well as detailing the crushing despair when the boys didn't like her back. There are mirrors meant to impart the self-consciousness of being a teenager, dioramas recalling specific memories and backhanded tributes to almost-boyfriends. A plexiglass shell surrounded by flowers encases Leutzinger's white confirmation dress, Snow White-style. Each piece includes a tape deck where you can put on headphones and listen to a song on a loop like Sisters of Mercy's "This Corrosion," Night Ranger's "Goodbye" and Bryan Adams' "Summer of '69." The centerpiece to the exhibit is Leutzinger's confirmation photo, blown-up to show a little girl with oversized glasses and brown feathered hair, smiling, with just a hint of misery in her eyes.

Leutzinger owns The Brink Gallery and this is her first solo exhibit ever. The idea for it started when Leutzinger's mother unearthed the confirmation dress from storage and brought it to her thinking it would be a nice memento. It wasn't.

"As soon as I saw it I was like, 'Uh! Uhhhh! No! Noooo!'" Leutzinger says, like a character in a B-horror film discovering an ax-murderer at the door. "It's not that I have anything against confirmation or religion or anything," she continues. "It's just that we unfortunately went to the church where all the popular kids went, so I spent three years, two hours a week, sitting in a room full of people being totally ignored. It was isolating."

A current of sadness runs through Landslide, and Leutzinger admits that digging up all the diaries and recreating sometimes awful memories was almost too unbearable at first; one piece is about a boy who shoved her on the gymnasium floor during a junior high dance. She had to get past a lot of things that she was surprised still got to her.

click to enlarge art, Jennifer Leutzinger, Landslide in my ego, Brink gallery, montana, missoula
  • photo by Cathrine L. Walters
  • A new exhibit from The Brink Gallery owner Jennifer Leutzinger, above, deals with the painful and nostalgic artifacts of youth.

"Something about those years are so significant in how you define yourself and how you see yourself and how you think others see you," she says. "Any other time period doesn't seem as significant to me as that still does, probably because there were so many years of suffering. I did have a few friendsit was more a self-esteem issue. But I wanted to be like the popular kids, and I couldn't be like them. There wasn't a moment ever where I was like, 'Maybe I should just be myself.'"

Over time, Leutzinger has found a sense of humor about the whole thing and that perspective comes out in the pieces. For instance, she found her old violin, which she had reluctantly played in orchestra for seven years, and decided to smash it for the exhibit—until a friend told her that would be too obvious and she should play it instead, as a tribute to humiliation. "She told me that it would probably be better if it sounded kind of bad and if it was uncomfortable for me and uncomfortable for the audience—which it will be," she says, laughing. "I don't want to do it, but I have to."

Besides a little good-natured humiliation, part of the fun of the exhibit is the immersion into 1980s and early 1990s artifacts and themes. This was the era of John Hughes, after all, the quintessential filmmaker of teen angst love stories like Pretty In Pink and Sixteen Candles. Leutzinger, who admits to seeing Sixteen Candles a whopping 40 times, uses Hughes as her muse for the exhibit—but not necessarily in a positive way. She calls him "The Manipulator of Hope."

"In Sixteen Candles you can see Samantha's torment but you know she's going to get the guy," Leutzinger says. "I would watch it to get that happy ending, the one that I never got in high school. It's not like John Hughes is evil but I'm kind of calling him a villain in my artist's statement. He sort of sabotages you, by giving you hope."

Landslide is a purging of one person's past pain, and it feels very specific to Leutzinger and, yet, familiar. If you know Leutzinger, though, you know there's an untold happy ending. The Ho Ho girl went on to be homecoming queen but Leutzinger went on to own a popular art gallery, marry an Internet startup entrepreneur and build a fancy modern house that's been written up in The Wall Street Journal. Together, the couple has an adolescent daughter who, Leutzinger says, doesn't seem to care what other people think of her.

The exhibit sticks to the time before the happy ending, but it alludes to hope, nonetheless. In her artist's statement hanging on the wall, Leutzinger displays a quote from the early 1990s cult television series "My So-Called Life," starring Claire Danes. "People always say how you should be yourself, like your self is this definite thing, like a toaster or something, like you can know what it is even," Danes says. "But every so often, I'll have, like, a moment when just being myself, in my life, right where I am, is, like, enough."

Jennifer Leutzinger's Landslide in My Ego opens at The Brink Gallery First Friday, July 4, with a reception from 5 to 8 PM and an additional reception Friday, July 18, from 5 to 8 PM.

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