Jenny Morgan's third exhibition at Like The Spice, One and the Many, opens May 13 with a reception 6:30-9pm, and remains on view at 224 Roebling Street through June 19.
How does your twofold process work?
I do generally build up the figure in two coats and then sand specific areas. So I have to kind of wait and see what parts to paint according to what I sand, so it goes in different layers. But I do like to build it up and then just tear it down again.
Do you know at the outset which parts of a painting you're going to end up scraping away?
Sometimes it's back-and-forth within the process. Like with this piece, which is titled "Arcadia," I knew that I was going to sand the hands and the skull so those are the things that I paint first. Then I sand those down and build the rest of the figure around it. So at times there is a set path, but I like in the end for there to be some freedom to come in and do weird little tweaks. With the sanding, the interesting part is that it's a different texture from the fully finished piece, so it's most exciting for me when those butt up against each other. So I have to have a solid place to sand and then bring the paint right up next to it.
How did you first develop this process?
It was one of those happy mistakes where I was doing a self-portrait and I hated it. I just didn't want to look at my face anymore, I'd painted my nose really strangely, and I came in an just wiped it off with a Turpenoid rag and I saw that the pigment still stuck into the crevices of the canvas and there was this ghost image. So in the next painting I did I started pushing that further, and started rubbing it off and sanding it. It's more about sometimes just not liking what I paint and feeling a need to destroy it. And then the ghost that's left is the interesting part. Because I've already got the joy of painting it, so it's just destroying the product.
Does this act of scraping have any kind of symbolic value for you?
I'm know that it does, but it's all pretty unconscious. Everything starts as a formal need and curiosity, and I know there's a lot of symbology and emotional content, but it comes out very unconsciously. If I'm aware of it then I become illustrative, and that's ground that I'm really afraid of because I know the big divide between the two worlds.
How do you choose your subjects?
The subjects are always people I know on a personal level, but I still haven't been able to paint, say, a boyfriend who I'm with at the time, because that's almost too intimate. So the people I choose are usually people I'm close to, I'm curious about or have a crush on.
That intimacy really comes through in the work; is that deliberate on your part?
I hope that comes through. I mean, I'm aware of it because I'm with them all the time. I really feel like these people are in the room with me, in a very non-cheesy way. And I have conversations; I'll ask the painting questions if I'm confused about something and wait for images to pop in my head. I know there's energy going into it.
Do you also work from photographs?
I work from photographs and I shoot all of them myself and I know very little about my equipment except for this one specific thing that I do. The photographic process is really important in terms of the relationship that happens. Some people are really shy and reserved and I have to take 200 shots to get them to kind of loosen up. One person I shoot is actually a model herself, so I can ask her to give me certain things, which is different. She's the one I use for the more sexually evocative stuff because she possesses that. I can just tell her, "give me sexy!" Most people are just horrified that they're standing in front of a camera naked. That's the interesting part is that they react differently.
What's it like doing self-portraits? Is it any easier or harder to paint yourself?
Painting myself is kind of easier in a way because I have more freedom to push those paintings further because it's me and I can do whatever I want. I do feel a level of respect for the people I ask and I don't want them to see their portrait and be horrified. Some people have—my parents cried when they saw their portraits, and not in a joyous way. They weren't happy about it. So I'm aware that those darker elements come through, and I try not to restrain myself, but with my self-portraits it doesn't matter. So I can sand the face down more, or experiment with different ideas and have more freedom.
How do you come up with your titles?
Sometimes the title comes first. It's always associated with the person. I just think titles with the name are just so boring and I like there to be more of a narrative with it. Just a poetic little dot on top of something. A lot of the titles come from song lyrics, or often just googling different words until something sparks. It is an intent to add something to it.
That's a little unusual, no? Many artists are choosing titles that deliberately don't add anything.
It's sketchy ground for sure. I don't want to be like, "This is Will and he's..." Just something subtle and not too ironic.
There's a violence in the act of scraping the paint, like you're actually scraping skin; is that sense of rawness something you try to accentuate?
When I first started doing this technique I was really surprised at people's reaction. They were like, "Oh they look bruised and beaten." My mom said, "I've seen burn victims and these look like burn victims." My original intent was to create just a ghost or a mist of the paint that had been there, so I had to look at the reactions and ask, is that really my intent with this? And that's where the glazing came on top, where I set these bright colors on top of the sanding because then it kind of pushes it to a different place where it's not so much about the raw skin and it's more about the element that is disappearing.
But there's also a part of me that really likes that violence. Like in Francis Bacon
's work, I'm really attracted to the darkness and violence and I never want it to be too pretty. I know some of them are, but I always want there to be a complimentary kind of rawness in it, if I can. And sometimes even at the end I feel like I didn't succeed and it's too pretty, so I try to push it.
Your paintings are obviously very precise; is there an element of chance or randomness when it comes to the scraping? Is that liberating in a way?
Totally. The scraping is extremely liberating and I kind of judge how far to push it, if I want to just be really down to the canvas, or if it's just this light scraping. But it takes away the preciousness of it. And realistic figure painting has a preciousness to it because it's perfected and you've spent hours painting it. And that's where my joy comes from, from painting that. But then it's like I get a high from scraping it down. And once something's kind of scraped or destroyed it opens the door to go in and try new things with it. Things change during the process, it is pretty open. The portrait, the anatomical figure is the basic structure and then I feel like I have the freedom to do whatever I want on top of that.
You mentioned Francis Bacon earlier; are there any other artists who've been especially important to you?
lately and Gerhard Richter
, just in terms of how they distort things. It's still portraiture but the blurring and the color have been a big influence. Really, lately, it's just kind of random images from Tumblr, and a lot of them have been fashion, and it's those colors I'm picking up on. I have a friend in Colorado who's doing a bunch of Photoshop images that he's layering on top of each other. And just that layering, even in Photoshop and flat imagery, really influences me in terms of how to layer glazes on top of stuff, or move stuff around. Even just colors on the sidewalk.
You did a series of collaborative paintings with David Mramor a couple years ago; how was that process for you?
The collaboration show changed my whole process. We went to graduate school together and we were best friends, we lived together, we had a studio together, we were working together, and he was an enormous influence. I would ask him to come in and stare at my paintings with me and he'd say, "I just want to put a big mark right there!" And I'd wonder, can I do that, am I capable of that? Because you get so used to how you paint, so to have someone come in with an opposite style and just be so comforting in what they say and how to move in your work was amazing. There were challenges, like passing a painting back and forth and trusting each other and again it kind of takes the preciousness of it away to hand it to another hand. And the his color choices and line structure...
There are certain abstract forms in this new series that remind me of those collaborative paintings.
Yeah, the patterning. I wouldn't have come to that naturally without seeing him do it on top of the figures themselves. He would even go in with a graphite pencil and do these very delicate lines over certain areas, and I never even would have thought of that.
Was that a conscious decision with this series to try to add those lines and colors?
Conscious and wanting it to come from the unconscious. Not too planned, but the line work has to be pretty structured, especially when it's on a lower level that I know I'm going to be sanding down to, I know it has to be pretty pre-planned. I'm still not sure about how design-y it feels, or how illustrative it feels. I'm just worried about going into too many different areas. Because I still want it to feel organic, even though it's very structured and geometric, so I'm hoping that they compliment each other.
Is there any other genre of painting that interests you, or are you pretty committed to portraiture?
Right now it's portraiture, and it's always bee figurative. In my early work I was just chopping the head off and focusing on the body itself and bringing in fabric to bring in color because I wasn't sure how to do that with the body. So the picture's going to be there, I'm just not sure how it's going to evolve. Because I'm already getting to a point where I've done the same set-up where it's the classical bust and they're in the center, and I've played with everything I've played with, what else has to change? So in the next body or work there'll be more changes in terms of how they're positioned or structured. I don't think I'll ever abstract the anatomy of the figure, just because that feels so uncomfortable, it's like the last realm to push myself into. But I want it to evolve, always. I feel in a way like I need to make it even more organic now because I've gone to the line work. I haven't figured it out yet, I need to take a month off and come back to it.
Is that scary at all, the notion that you're reaching then conclusion of a series?
More exciting, because it's the newness of trying something that's exciting. That's where the highs come from, it's doing something you didn't think you were capable of doing.
This exhibition features, as far as I know, your first multi-figure painting, a triptych; where did that come from?
It's still in progress, and it's getting near the end. These are two other girls I work with, and since I moved to New York my hardcore friendship group is still in Utah where I grew up, and you think you're never going to make those same kinds of connections. I never thought that I would as an adult because I've had the same group of friends since elementary school, and I live my life missing them and living away from them. And I work with these two girls, and it sounds cheesy, but a month ago we were at this party and there was this weird moment when we all looked at each other and were like, "we all get each other, and there's a really special connection we have and we should really foster this." It was just a crazy thing that you only experience in junior high, but it was in a very adult, spiritual way. And it's the first three-figure painting I've done, but I just feel very enthused with their energy. I'm very excited I could get them to pose—they're both artists. It's easiest to get artists to get naked for you; the commoners don't want to do it usually.
Is it ever difficult for you to paint people you're so close to, or does that actually make it easier?
I think it's better. When I was in grad school I wanted to paint prostitutes in this old, traditional male portraiture way. And I was looking in the back of the Voice. And I had this friend who had a porno shot in his living room the week before, and so I just called the girls who were in the porno and I asked them to come pose for me and it was the most disconnected painting I've ever done. I had no connection to them and I had to pay them, and it felt really disingenuous. And I painted an ex-boyfriend after we broke up, and actually I hated the painting so much I asked David to come paint on top of it, so we made this painting but we destroyed it. There has to be a good vibe with people. So I also can't do portrait commissions. Well, I have done illustration work for New York magazine and the New York Times, but they give me the source images and it's a different frame of mind where I know I'm producing something for an end product and there's no emotional weight in it. That has a different kind of joy in it, other than it has to be done in five days. There's a manufactured distance that I have to just adapt to. Painting Gwyneth Paltrow
smiling is not emotional for me.
Is there any part of portrait painting that you find really formally challenging?
Yeah, it's this weird part on the face, like the jowls and the chin, this area has always been perplexing and I don't know why, and it's my least favorite part to paint. I often run through it and just hope that the paint landed in the right place. And it's still an impetus for scraping or blurring. The last elements of detail are always a push to get done.
Do you work on multiple paintings at once?
Yeah, I didn't use to work on multiple paintings at the same time, but since I moved into this space and had more wall space and just more time to be here because I've been working at my day job less, it's been really amazing because I'll make a movement on one painting and realize that it could be done in another painting. So I leave the paintings open for longer and then once they've been photographed they're shut down. But they do hang in waiting for about two months.
There are a lot of very unnatural neon tones in these new paintings; where did the impulse to add those come from?
I think those come in as a compliment to the naturalness of the skin, and again the idea of putting two opposing forces together. For a long time I was really worried about being lumped into this portraiture/figurative category. So I always wanted to stay out of that realm and making things more Pop-y and contemporary felt like a good vehicle for that. But again, now I feel like I want to move back to being more organic, so it goes in waves.
One of these pieces is not a portrait, strictly speaking; what interests you in the idea or the image of the skull?
I started working with the skull during the summer, but it was through reference photos off the internet, which is completely disconnected but it was my only way of getting to a skull because it's vert illegal to purchase one. And then I remember that [my friend] Agata owns a human skull that's been passed down in her Polish family, so once I remembered that I realized I have to paint her and it. I think it just goes back to structure; that is the structure that's underneath the skin that I'm painting. And I've done a lot of anatomy, but even just seeing those bones made me realize, "Oh, that's why it always does this there." It made sense in a way that felt completely different. I was painting a portrait but not in the same way. That was actually my favorite thing to paint, it was like candy painting that.
Your work is very revealing; do you find yourself assuming the position of your subjects?
Completely. It's on this level that I'm not totally aware of, but just because I've been able to be here every day and working less, I feel so emotionally connected to these. And I was thinking that I'm going to need to visually create a scenario where I cut the chord with them to let them go. Because I can't have a connection to them while they're floating around the world because it's just too hard. This group of paintings I'm really connected to. I've had some really profound things happen to me during this time, and I know that energy is in there.
(Photos by Lou Gruber)