Jenny Nelson’s chaos

(Photos by Dion Ogust)

In Jenny Nelson’s studio, a former garage made light and airy by white walls, skylights, and a bank of windows, the Woodstock artist is finishing up a batch of paintings for her show at Carrie Haddad Gallery in Hudson, running from August 9 to September 24. Although she sells her abstract oils at galleries across the country, the Haddad exhibit will be her first local solo show in several years.

Nelson came to town 26 years ago to take a class at the Woodstock School of Art (WSA), where she also lived in the barn and modeled for classes at the start of a long and fruitful relationship. In the supportive community of Woodstock artists, friends often inquired about her work and sometimes provided her with studio space. From 2004 to 2008, she enjoyed a residency at the Byrdcliffe Art Colony. Now she teaches at WSA, has a long list of solo and group exhibitions in her C.V., and has sold work to collectors from California to Paris.

On a sunny afternoon in the studio behind her house, we are gazing at a 60-by-60-inch canvas perched on the wall ledge that serves as an easel. Still early in its development, the painting is an untidy mass of irregular shapes in muted colors. Nelson jumps right into explaining this phase of her work.

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I rotate my canvases constantly. This one is big, so it’s challenging to spin.

You mean, while you’re working on the painting, you change its orientation?

Yes. I try to wait as long as possible to decide what the orientation is going to be. I leave myself open to as many possibilities as I can. I could find it’s settling in one direction, then at the last minute I flip it, and it seems more exciting in this direction. To finish it, I adjust the angles and lines so it sits correctly in that position. [Nelson picks up the painting and rotates it 90 degrees counter-clockwise. She points to a series of broken horizontal lines in the upper third of the canvas.] In this direction, it looks like a landscape, which is so satisfying, but just because that was showing up, I’m going to fight it, so I turned it.

Why fight it?

A landscape is a very comforting, grounded reference, so it takes very little information for the viewer to grab onto that horizon line, and everything else falls into place. I go with that sometimes, but I would rather things are less recognizable. If it keeps showing up over and over through a certain piece, then I will work around it. But I don’t like it to be that easy.

It’s more accessible in this direction, but it loses some of the dynamic energy.

Exactly! But I could easily turn this chaos down below into what I want.

How do you start a piece?

I start from total chaos. I clean all the paint off my palette and throw everything onto the canvas with no thought about color, harmony, or composition, just to obliterate the white surface. Then I mix a new palette and layer in on top of the chaos. I start elaborating on one thing or making one color a dominant color. It becomes a process of addition and subtraction, but the shapes hopefully come out of the painting itself. The colors start interacting. I draw lines. With all the pushing and pulling, it comes to life. Something happens at first that’s wonderful and energetic, but it doesn’t have a story yet. It’s not interesting without a story behind it.

You mean the history of what you’ve done to it by revising?

Right. It takes weeks to make a painting. What happens at the end, something like this line can be changed 25 times. It takes days of sitting and looking, saying just a little more, and then it settles.

Did you develop this method yourself, or were you taught to do it this way?

I was classically trained in two-dimensional and three-dimensional design at Bard College. I was drawing and painting from life — mainly still lifes, and then I began to be interested in what was happening between the objects, expanding on the negative shapes. In 20 years of development, I’ve gone through many changes, trying to figure out what my own language is, what is unique to me, which could include paint application, the palette…I found out I prefer squares. And there’s that learning curve of technical prowess, making hundreds of paintings to get your technique down. There are moments in all earlier paintings, where something different happened that made your heart skip a beat, made you want to learn to implement it the next time. But it’s an old-fashioned practice that will only develop over a long period of time.

What engages you in those moments when your heart skips a beat?

I can put color down for days, and nothing interests me. That’s scary. I don’t know when that thing will happen that will hook me. It’s when the relationships are starting. Yesterday this painting was complete chaos. And then this shape started forming. [She points to two connected green parallelograms, one of them half open to a background of white and pink.] It started talking to this shape over here. [She indicates a dark grey mass edged in pink]. I’m interested in how I could build on the relationship of pink and green. But I know there’s going to be an issue with this [pointing lower down to a chunk of pale purple with streaks of pink showing through]. This purple next to pink gives me a bad vibe. Like you’re at the fair, and it’s really loud, too many spinning toys — it doesn’t give me a good feeling. In fact, I’m going to get rid of this right now. [She grabs a palette knife and wipes purple over the pink.] That was bothering me so much. So I’m either accepting or rejecting the color relationships. Sometimes it takes weeks to zero in on it. I have to come in and stare at it until I’m motivated to get up and see what’s the next move, what I’m willing to get rid of. I love this [a triangular space edged in green, enclosing white, pale blue, and an olive stripe]. Why can’t the whole painting be like that? Can you imagine trying to teach this?

You never studied abstract painting?

No. At the Woodstock School of Art, I’ve been teaching abstraction, color, and composition. I made up the whole class according to the things I’ve learned. I’ve broken it down into the fundamentals of any good painting. I invented exercises that start students thinking about these concepts. We don’t jump right into painting because paint is so seductive, you wouldn’t remember the concepts. So we collage, draw, talk about mark-making, shapes, composition, value. For four weeks, we use cardboard and magazines, asking these questions that are so important when you get onto canvas. What does a thing look like if it’s anchored at the edge? What about floating in the middle? Why do I like this better if it’s connected to this line? Once you start mixing a palette, you have all that under your belt. Four weeks in, every student says, “This is hard.”

So these principles are useful for making any kind of visual art.

What makes a difference is knowing how to draw. I’ve discovered a lot of students are afraid of drawing. They want to paint abstractly because thought they wouldn’t have to know how to draw, but to me, the difference shows in the ability for the painting to hold up over time. If you don’t know how to render an object in space in black and white, to draw the crumpled paper bag, the oval with light on it, the studies of light to dark — without this knowledge, the painting falls flat. Everything sits on the surface. It’s important to create a feeling of real space. Even if you’re looking at shapes and they’re not recognizable, it feels good because somewhere there’s depth to it.

 Why do you choose to make abstract art?

There’s a freedom in it. But it’s limiting to characterize myself as an abstract painter. Last year a photo caught my eye on Facebook. I looked up the photographer, and I was floored. I could completely relate to what he was seeing, how he came to his composition. I’ve made seven abstract paintings that start from his photographic compositions, and the paintings feel really different from my others because I am looking back and forth, making a drawing of his photograph and structuring the painting from that. It’s like working from life again.

So all this work right now is for the Carrie Haddad show in August?

Right. Carrie gave me my first professional opportunity in the Hudson Valley, just over 12 years ago, after I had been showing in restaurants and homes. She took one piece, and it sold, and our relationship grew out of that. I had my first solo exhibition with her.

And you’re in a show right now at the Kleinert.

It’s called “Composition: The Abstract Landscape.” This show is exciting because it includes historical painters, like Philip Guston and Milton Avery, along with some very talented current Hudson Valley painters, like Donald Elder and Tom Sarrantonio. In September, I’ll be participating in a show in Nantucket that includes four Woodstock artists, a kind of sister city art exchange, with myself, Kate McGloughlin, Polly Law, and Christie Scheele. We’ve all taught workshops at the Nantucket Artists Association, and a few of us have had residencies there as well.

And you have relationships with other galleries outside the area?

For the past few years, my shows have mostly been in Charlotte, North Carolina, at the Hidell Brooks Gallery. I have an exhibition coming up there in January 2018. I’ve also showed in California, in Chelsea, and at other urban galleries.

Jenny Nelson’s work is included in “Composition: The Abstract Landscape” from July 7 to August 20 at Kleinert/James Center for the Arts, 34 Tinker Street, Woodstock. Her solo show will be on display from August 9 to September 24 at Carrie Haddad Gallery, 622 Warren Street, Hudson. For more information, see http://www.jennynelson.com.

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