Artist Interview with Skidmore Contemporary Art
Skidmore Contemporary Art: If you could choose a different medium to work in, what would it be and why?
Jennifer Bain: About fifteen years ago I was in New York City gallery hopping and saw a solo exhibition by an artist who did digital projections. The work covered the entire gallery, so it was what we now call “immersive”. It just took my breath away. I remember thinking that if I was a young artist staring out, that would be my medium. It was emotional, dynamic and very moving.
SCA: How would you describe your creative process?
JB: I work almost daily and have done so as long as I can remember. My process tends to build on itself so there are always new ways to develop my ideas. I traverse between painting and printmaking, and even though the two processes are different they inform back and forth as to compositions, color combinations, and new visual information. Sometimes what comes out of the press, for instance, will give me an idea to try in a painting.
SCA: Has social media impacted your work in any way? If yes, how? If not, why do you think that is?
JB: My first thought was no, not really, but I think social media has impacted us all to a great extent and that must be in the work somewhere? I really love the connections it allows us: like seeing other’s work that I would never get an opportunity to do in real time and place. I feel more connected in general which is really fantastic.
SCA: What is your most memorable museum experience? Can you briefly describe it?
JB: I grew up in New York and my bus route home allowed me to drop into the Metropolitan Museum often. In those days there was no admittance fees, so I would just walk in and past the guards who generally knew me. I had the whole place practically to myself – It was rather unbelievable when I think back on it. I loved the Egyptian rooms the most, but spent a lot of time in the portrait galleries upstairs too.
SCA: What is something unexpected that has impacted/influenced your artistic style? (It could be a person, film, music, etc.)
JB: When I started using a personal computer in the 1990’s my work took a major shift in format influenced by the scrolling and “windows” of the computer screen. My compositions became segmented in film strip like sections containing related but variously different images.
SCA: If you weren't an artist, what would you be doing?
JB: I would be dancing!
SCA: What city/town/geographical location has provided the most inspiration for you?
JB: My hometown of New York City was an incredible place to grow up. The culture and countless museums I visited were a privilege and created my foundation in art.
SCA: Were you professionally trained as an artist? Tell us about that experience.
JB: Yes – I actually started out with an AA degree in fashion and worked in that industry for a few years in my 20’s. I always drew and painted and found my career frustrated those desires. So much so that I painted a mural or two on my apartment walls – which didn’t go over well with my landlords! Fortunately, or not, I contracted legionnaires disease and was deathly ill. I spent 21 days in semi comma in Intensive care in hospital. So, after almost losing my life, my priorities changed. I went back to art school and left fashion behind. I received a BFA in art and an MFA in painting.
SCA: If you could sit at a dinner table with 3 famous artists, who would they be? Why?
JB: I would love to have a conversation with Pat Steir, Jennifer Bartlett, and Lee Bontecou. These are the first women I knew of (not of the abstract expressionist movement) to make names and careers for themselves. They were not married to famous men to make their connections and they were my heroines. There are more names I could add but these three women make work I relate to and they navigated their lives with great determination and exemplary skill. Their tenacious experiences would be so great to hear.
SCA: What challenges do you face as an artist that people might not expect?
JB: I often think people not involved in a creative process are surprised to realize that it involves failure as well as success. I’m speaking in general terms, including the studio process and the “wordly” experience. Creative work requires experimentation, trial and error, and wonder at both. When we commit to Art we sign up to fail and succeed and both are equally acceptable. It’s hard work and you can’t have success without some failure.
SCA: When is your favorite time of day to create?
JB: All day but not at night – never been a night worker?
SCA: What advise would you give your younger self?
JB: Don’t work so hard – ha!
Art Guides Artist's Directory Interview, 2019
What is your journey in art?
I was born in New York City to parents who were both artists. My mother and father emigrated from Canada after World War 2 to pursue their respective art careers. The booming excitement of post war American Art was embedded in my childhood. The world was a place of great optimism, new ideas, and a break from the past. Those were the retorts or lessons I learned at home, mostly by example. I saw Andy Warhol's Brillo boxes and Campbell's soup can works when I was quite young. The later gave me nightmares for years!
At some point I realized my parents might be what people called "beatniks" and that we lived in a world very different from the families I saw on T.V. Never having a birthday party was explained to me by my mother as "we don't that kind of thing—we are artists". She was trying to save my feelings from getting hurt, as a majority of my classmates would not have attended a party in my neighborhood. I took it in stride because I drew, painted and created things everyday myself, as did both my brothers. We were allowed to draw on our bedroom walls, and create anything we wanted in our rooms. There was one long hallway wall in our apartment we all shared that was a canvas in motion. We would "outdraw" each other, alter images, paste over things, and redo or re draw what was there at any time. It taught us to share, be respectful or each other and be open minded visually.
I attended The Rudolph Steiner School (Scholarship), which allowed me a huge variety of expression, and ways to learn. The school was based on education through art, and I was a perfect fit. This is where I absorbed the world of ideas and philosophies.
But the caveat of such a rich cultural life had the downside of monetary instability, and my brothers and I felt the pinch of this uncertainty. Because of this I had no desire to follow in my parents footsteps after high school. A life of insecurity was out, and so I decided to get a degree in a practical art—fashion! I felt being a fashion designer would be creatively satisfying and earn me a steady paycheck, and so I got an A.A. degree and plunged into that field. It was a natural transition as I had been making cloths for all my friends and myself since junior high school. I got good jobs right out of design school, and worked my way up to assistant designer in junior sportswear, and I did make a good salary. I was living independently in Los Angeles, had a decent apartment in West Hollywood, good friends and lots of museums around me, but I was desperate for time to paint. I took this desperation right onto my apartment walls and painted murals on them.
Then suddenly I was struck down with legionnaires disease when I was 24. I was gravely ill and spent twenty-one days in the ICU unit at Cedars - Sinai Hospital, Los Angeles. I survived, but I was changed. Somewhere far away in the middle of this experience, or as a result of it, I realized I was not living the right life. It took several months to get my strength back but I knew I had to pursue art and leave my comfortable life behind. I paired down my belongings, broke my wedding engagement, and drove up to Northern California to attend The California School of the Arts. I then continued on to get a Masters degree in painting from The San Francisco Art Institute.
I lived the ideal difficult life of a student, and later an artist, living happily below the margins and honing my craft. I was able to fall back periodically on my training in fashion and worked part time as an assistant in the men's shirt division at Levi Straus & Company. I also taught dance exercise and aerobics to support myself. My life was also enhanced greatly by my marriage to a fellow artist. We supported and encouraged each other, and both found our own success in our practices. I lost him to cancer in 2016. He was a young 66.
I experienced commercial success for many decades, working with many galleries, and art consultants. I erased my childhood fears of instability with my success and long run practice. I am now exploring my work with a different focus, and that is the idea of exploration itself.
What/Who do you consider to be your greatest influence and why?
Apart from the discovery that happens in the art practice itself, I have been influenced by ideas, concepts, and philosophies that have a link to what I am exploring in the studio. One example: for about a decade my work focused on abstractions relating to Daoism's Dao de Jing. The idea of water being an entity that is shapeless, flowing, and takes the path of least resistance. These were characteristics I was applying to my yoga practice. In practical ways for translation of this I hiked many streams and waterways and used careful observation to bring back to the studio to translate by action. I did not do any drawings ion the field, but instead would observe and sometimes meditate at the sites to absorb the essence of what I perceived. The work that was created from this process was not a literal depiction, but rather a synthesis of observation and experience. Both the idea and the result exist in the ephemeral.
My work that followed was influenced by the idea of the then new current culture of the Internet. In this work I explored how to appropriate disparate images and make them coexist in a convincing way. I would say the catalyst for this work was the bar-rage of images and speed at which visuals are forced on us through the Internet. The paintings read like filmstrips or scrolled web pages.
But conclusively, my biggest influence is really the idea of the spiritual in art. This was introduced to me through The Rudolph Steiner School teachings based in Anthroposophy.
It's not the teachings themselves that had a big impact. It's the notion that there is a larger connection to the here and now, this has propelled my life's work.
What is your goal as an artist?
To continue to explore and do the best job I can with my work. I have painted many decades, and have been rewarded by freedom from doubt. I think all creative work is a desire to communicate and connect to others and the world at large. My hope is to stay in that flow, and continue to explore.
My new work is a translation of the emotional states I've experienced after relocating from California to New Mexico, to an altered lifestyle as a recent widow. I've paid close attention to the shifts in my energy and consciousness created by these changes.
The landscape of New Mexico influences my painterly space and the forms I use. The paintings reveal the layers and mysteries of the land and skies, where the distant mountain ranges read as flat shapes with hard and soft edges, presenting simultaneously an unfathomable illusion of depth and lack of depth. Shifting light sources from clouds and high altitude create implausible colors, and an odd or indiscernible focal point.
Buried forms and deep cut, scrubby lines compete for dominance on the surface, while multiple layers of under painting and drawing, erased and redrawn, create the platform for my translation of experience. The act of erasing creates a window into a world in motion, not unlike my own present interior.
Like a skin, the multiple layers underneath define the paintings' surfaces: interweaving squiggles and partially erased, soft-edged forms reveal layers of colors, where every inch is filled. Through this palimpsest of colored layers, my impressions of California's coastal lands are exposed, braiding time and place in memory.
The layers of marks, forms and textures in these paintings suggest time. Like the forms hidden within layers, the emotional content of the work, suggested in the titles, can only be fleetingly glimpsed. As I work, I uncover, or discover, obscured experiences, illuminating the process of being in the present while gazing back to the past.