By BARRY N. NEUMAN, JAN. 2018
"I Promise I Won't Paint You While You're Sleeping," a solo exhibition of paintings by Jenna Gribbon, on view at Modern Love Club, in the East Village, from December 11, 2017, to February 18, 2018, started too late for it to be a declared one of the highlights of 2017 and too soon for it to be predicted as one of the highlights of 2018. As this writer saw the show on the first Sunday of January 2018, he split the difference by identifying IPIWPYWYS as one of the highlights of Winter 2017 – 2018. The artist consented to be interviewed via email this week.
Barry N. Neuman: "I Promise I Won't Paint You While You're Sleeping," at Modern Love Club, appears to be a discourse on what it means for you to be an artist with a range of specific concerns whilst on a considerable journey through art history and contemporary society.
What was foremost on your mind, as you produced these remarkable oil paintings, which are thoroughly of this moment.
Jenna Gribbon: For the last couple of years I’ve been focused primarily on painting women, and painting women in a way that takes into consideration issues of agency and consent between artist and subject. The tendency of many artists throughout history to use women decoratively in their paintings as passive objects or to use the female body to depict the personification of virtues and vices is one of the central concerns of the work. Someone, like Lynette Yiadom-Boakye, using historical painting tropes to highlight the omissions of said history—in her case, people of color—is very effective and inspiring. I’m working with similar references to recontextualize the present, but where her figures are fictional and have a universal quality, the women in my paintings are people I know (with the exception of a couple of public figures). The way intimate access to a subject manifests itself in a painting is at play, as is showing women going about their lives, being the self-possessed, intelligent, passionate, and flesh-and-blood beings that they are.
BNN: "Chrissy, Taking Reference Photos For Her Paintings" is an eloquent work with great presence. It had initially reminded me of a Lee Miller photograph of a group of picnickers, and, with the lovely, late afternoon sun, pouring over the grass and through the flowing hair of several young ladies, it also reminded me of one of George Bellows' paintings of tennis at Newport. What, if anything, is "Chrissy…" about?
JG: With this painting, I was actually thinking about Édouard Manet’s "Le Déjeuner sur l'herbe." The peaches in the lower left corner are extracted directly from that painting. This work was conceived of during a weekend spent with a group of women artists that I meet with regularly. This particular weekend, we were attending a salon, based around the experience of the body. My friend, Chrissy, was taking photos for some nude paintings, and we were all game to participate. The light and setting and women combined into a tableau that was so beautiful, it was almost comical. I liked the meta idea of portraying a figurative painter who is a woman, gathering her references, and of painting all the beauty of the other women standing around, comfortable in their own skin and having conversations. I love the Manet painting, but the fully-dressed men, picnicking with the undressed women, are a little disconcerting. I wanted to reclaim the painting and make a version that reflects my own--possibly also unrealistic--ideal, that we can admire in a less conflicted way. Something that comes up a lot with these paintings is the beauty and romanticism of them, which for a lot of people can be troubling. I don’t feel the need to deproblematize beauty, and I actually want the work to exist in a slightly sticky and uncomfortable place. Sensuality, beauty, and romanticism are all aspects of my reality in my interactions with women and with the medium of paint, and that gets reflected in the work.
BNN: Your paintings seem to both embody and break away from traditions. They celebrate and subvert subject matter, content, and technique. How do you approach making choices and executing them in painterly terms?
JG: Yes, the work is, in part, about my complicated relationship with the history of painting - not only with the way women have been depicted in painting, but also with the patrilineage of artists from which my work descends. I’m so steeped in the history of the way white men have translated ideas and images into paint, that I’m sure I will never be able to think of a Eurocentric male approach to painting as anything but just painting. The painting of myself with a mustache, painting a “bather,” could have alternately been titled, “Daddy Issues.” I love the work of so many men from this history, but I’m grappling with my own inclination to make work that comes directly from a tradition that would have left me out until very recently, and that continues to exclude many voices.
BNN: In "Self-portrait With Bathers And Flowers and Fruit," you appear with a mustache. In "A Young Woman Is Surprised To Find Herself In a Painting Of Lee Miller," the composition and techniques brought to mind Jacques Rivette. Do you consider your works to be performative? Are they, for you, counterpoints to drama, literature, or cinema?
JG: I am really inspired by Jacques Rivette. He, along with Jean Cocteau and Agnès Varda, are the filmmakers who have most informed my work, particularly in the way they’ll often tip their hat to the audience to portray an awareness of the relationship between viewer and maker. It’s always surprising and delightful within the framework of a traditional, narrative film, and I guess I try to do that in my paintings, too. By saying that, “a young woman is surprised to find herself in a painting of Lee Miller,” I’m indicating that the subject is aware that she’s in a painting; so, maybe I am creating an approximation of a performative space- the painting as a stage or a set.
BNN: What's up next for you?
JG: I still have so much to explore in terms of painting women, but, in the work I’m planning now, the narratives will be less allegorical and a bit more personal and diaristic. You can expect to see more on motherhood, work, sex, and every other thing women do with their lives. WM