Studio photo, courtesy of Jenny Morgan
Summer art crawls are an opportunity to indulge in numerous pseudo-openings in one succinct evening. Jenny Morgan’s tantric portraits at Williamsburg’s Like the Spice Gallery were unearthed on one such hallucinatory traipse in 2009. The furthest corner of the gallery housed The Bridge (2008), an eight-foot canvas of two naked lovers floating in negative space that was immediately engaging in its grandiose proportions. Morgan is attentive to the couple’s genitals and faces as the body fades in and out of focus. Masked in a gray wash, they hover in purgatory, addicting and engaging in their gloomy opacity. Morgan employs people in her life as subjects for highly realistic but technically experimental busts or full-body oil paintings. After the paint adheres, she sands the image down and considers additional layers or effects. Extreme and corporeal, brutal and sentimental, Morgan’s concentrated vision flourishes in the raw.
Lynn Maliszewski Many of your images possess a graphic quality that accompanies the more realistic components, particularly notable in the hands, genitals, and face. Is this juxtaposition significant?
Jenny Morgan Graphic’s a good word. I’ve been using the hands as contrast, as a way to make two different parts. I can sand the hand and leave the bust solid and it’s just glaring. I’m trying to not get too formulaic with it. It’s been a really nice way to experiment. I think the more detail there is in the area, the easier it is for me to make. I’ve noticed that a lot with even my painting for Marilyn Minter: I’m much better at the highly dense areas than the large spans of gradation. I just lose interest. I use the hands like the eyes and the nose and the mouth as areas to really pop.
LM You’ve noted that your subject matter is more often than not someone you know. However, a gray area exists in having them be too familiar and thus unable to be painted. You’ve required a particular distance in your work. Are you staying on that track?
JM Yeah. I don’t think I could paint my boyfriend, it’s almost too much. It’d be too hard. Even this friendship I had that recently fell out… I still have images of that person and I want to go back and make these crazy paintings. I feel like they’d be like, “What are you doing?!” I pick certain people and I go through stages with them. The last solo show I did in Denver had this theme of using all artists I’d been close with and hadn’t seen in a while. I started painting them and realized I was too distant from them now and it was really hard. It’s such a delicate balance.
LM Did anything in your adolescence instigate your desire to be an artist?
JM My dad is an architect and he totally fostered that. It was always there. I don’t remember ever needing to push it, it’s just kind of a give in. I remember in high school not getting into the right art class and having this moment at home, not being able to make something, and I just scribbled for hours and realized I needed to let that out somewhere. It was a good moment, like, Oh, you really do need to be doing this. I lived in Salt Lake until I was eighteen then moved to Denver for undergrad, which really shaped me in a lot of ways. I’m thankful it was a big enough community that I could be known but still know everyone there. They knew me since I’d been painting cloth and could see the whole progression. Salt Lake was weird and very conservative.
LM Have you ever thought of working with new material, media or sizes?
JM I haven’t thought of incorporating other media, although I just started this year using the glazing media. The more I learn from each thing I do the more I jump into new areas. Silver’s really jumping out to me lately so I’m wondering if I can use it and how that would work. I’m trying to do everything that really freaks me out right now. I feel like I move in really small increments, even with how large the figure is getting. I can see my baby steps and I’m trying to take bigger steps. This size (approximately three by four feet in most cases) is really prevalent based on how large I want the figure to be and time restraints. I’ve had constant deadlines; it generates a specific way of working. The face used to be 12 by 12 inches, so I started playing with that size and it got bigger and bigger. The eight-footer (The Bridge) is one of my favorite sizes to work with. When I was twelve to fifteen I was using only colored pencils, which is an interesting thing because they still layer the same way. Finally my teacher was like, ‘You have to learn to do this the right way with paint.’ I always want to start some drawing projects and it just never happens.
LM Any ideas for your next image?
JM The next one is going to be a self-portrait, after that I’m in no man’s land. I was thinking about going back to some older photographs, and I also really want to do another one of my dad. It’s such a tricky thing because I know he doesn’t want me to. I’m debating on how or if to do that. I want to do a huge canvas for PULSE: a multi-figure, three to four people. I’ve got a few people in mind but I really need to work on that group. They have to have a connection to each other; I can’t just throw random people together. The two sisters would do it again, I’m wondering if someone else from our friendship circle will jump in there. If I need to I’ll be the fourth person but its way harder for me to paint myself fully naked obviously. Those are the most challenging. I’m working up to doing another full nude of me but we’ll see.
LM Where did you find inspiration for your newest body of work?
JM I started out thinking about the body and finding an emotional quality that I was trying to attach to. The more mature I become with the work the more I don’t rely so much on an outside source and trust my instincts. Right now, it’s really about color and the layering and the dimensions. I’ve let go of the worry about if the skin’s perfect or if the nose is off a little bit or if they (the subject) are gonna care. I’ve let that structure of the figure not be as vital as challenging myself. I don’t have any artists in particular but I am attracted to a lot of German artists right now like Neo Rauch and the way that they use paint. I’m trying to form more of a love affair with what I can do with paint. I always wanted to be more conceptual and outlandish and not so structured with paintings. I know it has its own boundaries but you are the artist you are and you try to appropriate and steal from people but you really have a certain way of working.
After switching from Illustration to Fine Arts at the Rocky Mountain College of Art and Design, Morgan was immediately attracted to portraiture. She searched for warmth, an emotive connector to her realistic but tampered imagery. A red layer of oil paint facilitated this goal and has been the foundation of each canvas since her earliest decapitated, partially nude self-portraits. After moving to New York to attend the School of Visual Arts’ MFA program, her work took the jump toward emotional sensitivity Captured (2008), one of her five thesis images, plunges into the dramatic and provocative. Morgan’s emotive portrayal of her website’s designer is audacious. The red background roars, garishly overwhelming the petite Asian woman’s banged bob haircut and taut hands swiping her cheekbones. Eyes closed, she could be crying, squinting, or massaging lotion onto her skin. Morgan establishes red’s versatility saturated in emotional resonance. It is on the edge of vibrancy, cynicism, and sadness. Don’t Leave Me Father (2008) balances white and red; it is both striking and agonizing. The white suggests the exhaustion of age despite the youthfulness of the middle aged man’s eyes, revealing a tainted tenderness and urgency. The actuality of the patriarchal relationship assumes a distance parallel to her other subjects. Sadness and a desire for longevity shine through in monochrome contrast.
Morgan is currently focused on testing her technique. Cautious about becoming too stale in her polished portraits, she is investigating variations in color and glazing techniques. From the Valley to the Stars (2010) implies the breadth of this shift. The right limb of the portrait, complete with exterior knuckle folds and mentions of muscular strain, remains realistic despite a mustard tint. A cloak of midnight exhausts the physicality of the left hand and forearm into a flat, dense mass. By incorporating other aesthetic techniques, Morgan is moving toward sophistication and away from ‘bruised and battered.’ Stepping outside of assumptions of violence or degradation allows a fresh connection to her subjects’ sentiment. There is a curiosity that translates quite strongly in the new work. Do each of her subjects wonder why she’s requesting their posing despite whatever subtle distances they may have in their relationship? This is not to say that skepticism need follow one of Morgan’s invitations, but one’s got to wonder: what layers of the soul has she exposed or invented?
The self-portrait is a terrain ripe with trial and error as well. Her often times deer-in-headlights gaze, open mouth, and full-frontal face objectify her position as artist, swiveling between a subject of boredom and brilliance. Chronic (2010) spans beyond concerns of character and is suggestive of Morgan’s genuine artistic direction. Her hands, clutched around her wide-eyed Betty Boop coo, are true to form down to her scarlet fingernails. Her face is masked in worn charcoal striations, fading into her flat tuft of maroon hair. Her tresses diminish into the menacing black void of the background. Morgan’s self-portraits are the water to her garden, succeeding in their undisguised attention to detail and unrestrained experimentation.
The radiance of her self-portraits is intriguing considering the emotional distance she keeps from most of her subjects. In her detachment, she is able to manipulate the full extent of her wild creative vision. Morgan’s distance neutralizes the subjects and allows her to imaginatively and impartially render her subjects in light of this freedom. Comfortable in her headspace, she aggressively pursues a balance between impartial and charged portraiture. Like a work station for a writer or reader, her subjects are familiar yet allow for her to plant her own seeds. Relying on her visions of portraiture rather than art historical references, Morgan dismantles notions of orientation and limits. Sinking into her instinctual tendencies and tapping into the collective subconscious, she trusts the impulse of her fingertips.
Studio photo, courtesy of Jenny Morgan.
CHRONIC, 2010, oil on canvas, 35 × 29 inches.
FROM THE VALLEY TO THE STARS, 2010, oil on canvas, 51 × 30 inches.
Studio photo, courtesy of Jenny Morgan.