Jenna Gribbon’s life as a figurative painter made a sharp turn in 2017, when she was 38. “It took me so long to understand myself and my sexuality,” she tells me, “and that could be attributed in large part to the lack of images of women in relationships with each other. There’s a bit more history of gay men depicting and depicted in romantic situations, but I’d seen so few examples when I was growing up of queer identity among women. I wanted to make work that was impactful, but also more direct and more pleasurable,” she says.
Jenna had been married to and divorced from a man, Matthew Gribbon, and she was then living with her partner, the novelist Julian Tepper, and their son, Silas. (Jenna and Julian were not married and had an open relationship.) It was at this moment that she met Mackenzie Scott, the indie-rock singer and composer known as Torres. Scott, who is 12 years younger, became her lover and main subject.
When I visit Gribbon in late August, she leads me to her Brooklyn studio through a magical secret garden with tall trees, low stone walls, and gravel paths. We head down a flight of steps into a smallish, double-height room with a skylight.
It may be New York’s most charming studio: Paintings for “Mirages,” her show at the Collezione Maramotti in Northern Italy (her first solo show in a European museum, which opened in October), hang on the whitewashed brick walls, and nine of the show’s 10 paintings are of Mackenzie. The eye-catcher is Here for you, a 13-foot-long stunner of Scott lying supine on a slab, under five floodlights, against a greenscreen background, naked except for short-shorts and cowboy boots. Scott’s long ash-blond hair cascades over the slab’s edge. Her extra-pink nipples stand out as though she’s put lipstick on them. Her head is turned, looking at me as I look at her, a somewhat troubled expression on her beautiful face. The patient in Thomas Eakins’s The Gross Clinic or the half-dead giant in Dana Schutz’s Presentation come to mind. But this one is something else: Scott’s pose may echo female odalisques throughout art history, but we’re a long way from the male gaze. “People have become so accustomed to looking at unclothed bodies in art,” Gribbon explains. “Those are nudes, and they’re considered tasteful. But I want people to understand that it’s not a passive act to consume the image of another person’s unclothed body, which is why I like to make them feel more naked. Like, ‘Oh, maybe I’m not supposed to be looking at this.’ It’s a way to make the nude body less benign and more true to what it really is, which is extreme vulnerability on the part of the subject.”