Jenny Eden talks to Susie Pentelow about recent shifts in her painterly practice.
At first glance, your paintings appear abstract, but closer inspection suggests fragments of a landscape or scene - I am thinking of works like ’Skip to the middle’ and ’Tengle’, which make me think of plants or stems. How much do you want viewers to understand what they are looking at when they see your work?
David Salle talks about paintings that engage the viewer on their own terms and that good work requires hard looking (Salle, 2015*). I like these words and I agree with Salle. Through the act of looking, I think my work promises something which, as you say, may seem organic. But it’s the place between non-representation and the propensity to find representation that really holds my attention. There are marks in these paintings that could suggest things we know and there are marks that are more ambiguous. It seems to me that as something tangible starts to form in the mind whilst one is looking at one of these paintings, any kind of understanding breaks down. It is at this point that the viewer is faced with the painting alone, not a thing, a place or an occurrence, but something that is about the physical act of painting.
This connected to my recent musings about not knowing. I’ve been thinking about the empty space between the mind of the painter and the surface of the painting before marks are made and some sort of potential reveals itself. This is usually a very productive and liminal space and one which Fisher and Fortnum quite rightly say is sought after in the artistic process (2013**). I am really interested in the way that a painting can hold this uncertainty in a state of not knowing, recognizing, allowing, remaining and containing in order to facilitate something in the mind of the artist whilst painting and something in the mind of the viewer when looking.
* Salle, D. (2015) ‘Structure Rising: David Salle on ‘The Forever Now’ at MOMA’. ARTNews. March, p44 – 53.
** Fisher, E. & Fortnum, R. (2013) On Not Knowing: How Artists Think. London: Black Dog Publishing.
Previously, your work engaged with tight, geometric forms, whilst recent work suggests a movement toward looser, more gestural marks. Has this been a shift in your practice?
Absolutely. As you suggest, my previous work dealt with spatial concerns using solid color against an intensely worn or worked surface and often took months to realize. Having developed a body of work over a number of years I was ready for an injection of criticism and attention in the form of postgraduate education. Since September 2015 I have been studying for an MFA at Manchester School of Art, which has challenged my practice more than I could imagine.
A useful lesson at the beginning of the MFA was to confront any habits that had set in. So I immediately started to make a painting in one go, which allowed for an immediacy I had not experienced as intensely before. I also decided to put both the hard edge and solid color to one side and concentrate on developing a language of mark-making and gesture. The work has since grown in both robustness and significance and I am now dealing with painting from a deeper understanding of facture and index. The paintings are now constructed through what I call sittings; layers of activity (made in one go or sitting) that connect or react. And I’m particularly interested in reworking a painterly approach to depth and illusion in my work. Rather than using a perspectival tool to determine the nature of a recession, I want to create depth through a series of flat planes of painting activity. In doing this, marks can protrude and recede independent of their size, fabrication or color.
Your titles are very intriguing - what role do they play?
I used to have a hard time titling work, but the recent work has instigated another shift. Each painting is autonomous, existing by itself and for itself, and probably, for this reason, titling can be a very interesting and enlightening process for me now. In these paintings, the title plays something of an addendum-like role. It is not a way of understanding the painting but acts like another sitting or layer of activity at the end of the doing part. Immediately after making a painting, I usually give it a pet name - often something quite ridiculous - as a reference. Sometimes the real name comes from this, or if the pet name is impractical I try to be more serious! In some cases, the title of the painting functions in the same way as the painting itself; it almost makes sense but not completely.
Is there an artist, living or dead, who has been particularly influential for you?
I guess my answer to this question has to be Agnes Martin. I melt to the subtle and monochromatic qualities in her paintings, but what attracts me more so these days is her approach to making work. Martin asks the painter to listen to their mind and search for the thing that appeals to them in order to pursue potential and shed the rest (Martin, 2004*). I cannot help but follow this guidance like a mantra because it really works for me. It’s about achieving a kind of meditative state to maintain the practice of painting and, like Martin, really get in touch with the work. I have realized that I need a mental quietness before, during and after making work. I also need to let the paintings breathe, as I do. They also gain experiences. In a rather odd and sort of confrontational way, it is as if they need to have fight in their bellies to survive and be something. For me, this certainly comes back to the autonomy of the painting.
* Liesbrock, H. & Martin, A. (2004) ‘The Islands’. Düsseldorf: Richter Verlag.
What do the next few months have in store for you?
Initially, I have an exhibition at Cornerstone Gallery, Liverpool Hope University, with the sculptor Polly Tomlinson from 13 January to 1 February. I then plan to make more work. I have been painting at 1.8 x 1.5 meters recently and I am working through the process of translation something from the smaller scale to the larger scale. This is revealing new concerns about flatness and places of painterly activity on the canvas. I am also looking forward to the MFA show in September / October this year and I have plans to be involved one or two group shows between now and then.
I am keen to understand my practice in the context of both contemporary painting and contemporary writing and I will be continuing to research and write on themes that are close to my practice. As a painter, who writes, I feel I am able to shed a different light on painting from inside its physical activity, and this really excites me.
You can see work by Jenny Eden and Polly Tomlinson at Cornerstone Gallery, Liverpool Hope University from Friday 13 January to Wednesday 1 February, with a preview on Wednesday 25 January from 6-8 pm. For more information, visit www.hope.ac.uk/cornerstonegallery .
To find out more about Jenny Eden’s work, visit www.jennyeden.co.uk.