photo: Franco Vogt
Jenny Nelson attended Maine College of Art in Portland Maine, and is a graduate of Bard College, where she received a scholarship to the Lacoste School of the Arts in France. She has been living in Woodstock, New York for nearly two decades, including a Residency at the Byrdcliffe Art Colony from November 2004-08. Jenny has been exhibiting for many years nationally and regionally including, Tria Gallery, Manhattan, NY; Hidell Brooks Gallery in Charlotte, North Carolina; Carrie Haddad, Hudson, NY and Pryor Fine Art in Atlanta, GA.
Jenny Nelson in Conversation with John Seed:
Jenny Nelson begins each of her canvases with layers of color that are improvised, abstract and even chaotic. Through a process of addition and subtraction she brings each painting closer to her personal sense of balance with sensitivity and an attention to detail.
Committed to abstraction -- yet very sensitive to her environment Jenny Nelson creates paintings that are energetic, responsive and finely tuned.
JS: What can you tell me about your background and training?
JN: I was classically trained as an artist: I love drawing and studied a great deal of it in my foundation courses in college. I took one particularly memorable class in Renaissance figure drawing repeatedly at Bard.
My interest in abstraction evolved from two early fascinations: the depiction of still life and the negative space surrounding the objects I was observing. Arranging shapes dynamically within the canvas remains a passionate preoccupation.
Referencing my years of life drawing, the shapes and marks that I now consider my abstract language create the illusion of space and depth. Though the rendering of objects is now just a glimmer, hopefully my lines, edges, lights and darks do create the feeling of real space and that is very satisfying and important to me.
JS: What elements do you strive for in your work?
JN: I hope to create some amount of push/pull, or lost and found edges. Lines drawn with oil sticks have become an important compositional element. Edges appear muted where chance colors overlap and the unexpected remains visible. I also have a concern for brushwork and the different ways that oil paint can be applied, which affects the mood, movement and energy of the painting.
Overall there is less control, as I strive to let the paint move and react fluidly. This gives me a way of getting lost, finding and seeking. A spontaneous conversation begins and the painting informs me of its direction.
JS: Do you have any favorite tools or methods?
JN: I apply paint in layers using palette knives, brushes and oil sticks. I initially allow myself to draw wild gestures and free flowing marks. Often traces of previous layers remain visible, allowing colors to interact in ways I could not have anticipated. This process leaves me feeling quite lost a lot of the time, and I have had to learn to become comfortable with that feeling. This sometimes builds to frustration, and I will scape off much of what was applied, but the result of doing this is often something wonderful that moves the painting forward.
JS: How do you stay open and flexible as you paint?
JN: I stay flexible by responding to the painting. There is a wonderful quote from Robert Motherwell where he describes a conversation he might have with his work:
"as when a canvas says to you: this empty space in me needs to be pinker; or a shape says: I want to be larger and more expansive; or the format says: the conception is too large or too small for me, all out of scale; or a stripe says: gouge me more-you are too polite and elegant; or a gray says: a bit more blue, my present tone is uncomfortable and does not fit with what surrounds me."
This quote really speaks to me: I think it perfectly captures the idea of the artist’s lack of control in the work. The painter must follow what the painting asks for. I view it as collaboration. I can not will a painting to work. Many “accidents” occur, and if recognized, seen clearly, they can become the glue of a good painting.
JS: How do you respond when viewers detect recognizable images in your abstract works?
JN: I think many people have a natural need to identify and name things in abstract work. A reference to something familiar is comforting. I hear people mention that they see this or that in my paintings all the time. That’s fine, but I am perfectly comfortable not seeing anything recognizable.
I am purely weighing and measuring all the elements by size, strength, energy, value and how they affect each other in the given space. I think it takes some time to learn to see in a new way and just let a painting be a grouping of elements that has a complete sensibility of its own that is not dependent on recognizable imagery.
JS: What role does color play in your paintings?
JN: At the moment I have been doing a lot of experimenting with greys, neutrals and the tones of the colors I gravitate towards. My palette used to be brighter and more simplified.
I find color very hard to talk about actually. I think there is an academic approach to color and an intuitive approach. I am definitely an intuitive painter. I feel like every painting is an experiment in color relationships. Even as the first preparatory marks are put on the canvas I am reacting to color. I like certain combinations, others make me feel uncomfortable, or I want to learn more about unfamiliar relationships. I also take a lot of time mixing a palette. I learn a tremendous amount mixing colors. My palette is just a suggestion for where a painting could go, opportunities waiting to happen. Once the paint begins interacting on the canvas, wet on wet, all sorts of other things happen that are unexpected. I do have preferences; we all have colors we gravitate towards. But I hope to challenge my preferences as well. Right now I am working with a pink/orange that feels like very unfamiliar territory.
JS: What do you strive to put into your work?
JN: I am always exploring but I think you can always see my hand in the work. My recent paintings look busy to me, but honestly I have no control over that: I have to go with the flow. As each painting develops -- starting with that initial burst of lively chaos it can and does loose steam. Maintaining the life force of a painting is a continuous challenge. What started as a wild party ends up as a contemplative, careful process, involving precise modifications.
I would also say I strive for the paintings not to be too pretty. I really love paintings that are grittier then mine: paintings that feel a little raw or unhinged. I would like to have more of that going on in my work, but I seem to have an ingrained anchor that balances everything. So I try to have some tension, and leave some mess, some unconstrained lines to counteract the appeal of the colors and off set the composition.