X-Ray Vision: Mary Jones discusses her work with Brenda Zlamany
Mary Jones discusses her work with fellow artist Brenda Zlamany at her one-person show “Proxima b” at John Molloy Gallery (on view through November 26) and in her Chelsea studio. Really, the conversation began when Jones sat for a portrait in Zlamany’s Watercolor Portrait a Day project, which lead to an article here at artcritical about Brenda’s work by Mary. Now the tables are turned.
BRENDA ZLAMANY: At first it would seem that our work doesn’t have much in common, but then I read about your process, how you rely on layering and how you do the final layers very quickly. That’s similar to the way I work. I start with a very labor-intensive under-painting, which is more of an illustration and then obliterate it with various layers of tinted glazes until it becomes art. Toward the end it’s a risky business because I have to be willing to sacrifice the image. Do we have something in common in terms of process?
MARY JONES: The compelling difference is that you define your initial image as something that isn’t art. I don’t. It’s all art, it’s all of equal value to me. The painting may not be working at times but going through that process and experience is important to me. I work on a piece repeatedly until I find some semblance of form. I’m looking for something new, but something I recognize.
In Bridges for Hedda Sterne and Hover the scale is very specific to the roller that you’re using, and I see traces of symbols from earlier paintings. There’s a lot of stuff obliterated. Are there hidden images behind these roller marks?
When I use a roller it has a motion and a weight that’s specific to the tool, and an extension of my body. I want it to be physical. It’s a form of drawing, and it’s also working to cover plenty of process history. I’m consciously using my biography in this new work, I’ve been revisiting my past and these paintings reinterpret and recontextualize images from earlier pieces as a way to begin.
Looking at the painting, Hover, which is obviously painted with a roller, I’m thinking that anybody who’s started to paint a room is going to have that kind of gesture, especially if you’re not professional and you’re rolling every which way, but on the other hand it’s also a very complicated atmospheric moment. It’s like you’re painting light but you’re also just priming a wall, so there’s this tension between the atmospheric, romantic landscape and this utilitarian thing.
I hope so. I want it to have that edge, something ethereal rooted in the every day. I like that the roller signifies a kind of erasure, a fresh start, and also speaks to all the construction that goes into my work, while still functioning as a tool for gesture.
Also in Hover, I am reminded of Mark Rothko. Is this an accidental Rothko? But the light is very Frederic Edwin Church and there are so many other possible references, you could even see a Winslow Homer seascape in it. It’s the most representational of the paintings in the show. Maybe because there is a horizon, it seems to reference landscape. Bridges refer to landscape too. In these later paintings are you turning to landscape?
I’m not really interested in landscape. I don’t mean to shut you down with that comment, but if we went out to the beach to paint on an observational excursion, I’d be painting the people and not the waves. My work is much more about movement and consciousness, and although a sense of place may be a part of that, it’s not specific terrain. Hover is one of the last paintings made for the show, and began with colors from Giorgio Morandi, soft greys and pinks. But now the blues and whites could evoke the American West, and the skies of Georgia O’Keeffe. The title could bring Rothko to mind, it has a duality of forms in tension with one another that’s similar to his paintings.
How did you come up with the title for the painting, Bridges for Hedda Sterne?
The “Abstract Expressionist New York” show at MOMA in 2010 included Hedda Sterne, and she had this amazing painting, a spray painted Brooklyn Bridge that looked like it could have been painted yesterday. I liked the bold optimism of the work, and found it so embracing of industrial NYC and urban life at the time. As this painting progressed, it seemed structural to me, and I like the metaphor of a bridge as a connection, to a woman artist of a previous generation and to the bravado of American Post-war painting.
The stencils collaged onto the works on paper are literally from past work, so once you use them up, you won’t have them anymore. Because there are a limited number of these stencils, using them this way must be a big decision. In these pieces, the stencils are at the end of their lives. It’s like a eulogy. You’re putting your past work into your current work. Cleaning your attic in some weird way… Taking stock… How does that fit in with your life?
It’s like those dreams where you’re searching through a house and you unexpectedly find a spare room. One thing that’s hard about giving up the stencils is that they’re equally beautiful on both sides. I have some rules for using them, and one is not to paint or change them. I’m trying to keep them as unselfconscious as they were when they were tools. The stencil motifs are often derived from lotus forms, an image that speaks to a kind of evolution and transformation, but here it does become finite. I like that they look so old and worn, which of course, they are.
I see that spraying through stencils combined with pouring paint continues in these small collage paintings, but with added elements. How did you apply the feathers? It’s an interesting surface.
It’s feathered wallpaper, and they’re real feathers. I was doing some faux painting on a Peter Marino jobsite, and he was having a powder room wallpapered in this material. I’d never seen anything like it. I took all the scraps I could get that day, and then after having them lying around my studio for months I started putting them into paintings and now I’ve made a series around them. It’s an outlandishly expensive wallpaper and I won’t be getting any more. I find it beautiful but a little disturbing.
What I like about these pieces is that they have a kind of erotic vulnerability. And I see this throughout your work. There’s something particularly tentative and tender about the way these shapes are hitting there. It’s a very specific mood that’s distinctive to your work. Something that you’re saying. They’re intimate pieces that don’t overpower you, they subtly communicate with you.
They’re very much about imagination. I’ve been looking at a lot of Greek Cycladic sculpture and Miro paintings on sandpaper. They begin on the floor with splatters and pours and evolve slowing through something like a Rorschach experience. The painting titled Lion reminded me of how animal forms are found in constellations, which I think of as another kind of abstraction, points and fragments connected into form. The small scale is like the page of a book, maybe an ancient manuscript, and there’s gold and silver leaf applied.
[Jones and Zlamany then headed down to the Chelsea Arts Building, where Mary Jones’s studio has been located for 20 years. Paintings in every stage of completion line the walls and floor. Stencils and various other source materials cover the walls.]
These paintings are very different from the paintings in the show, are they finished? It looks like you’ve got X-rays of a body. Can we talk about what’s going on in them?
These are made from my late mother-in-law’s X-rays. When Ross, my husband, was cleaning out her apartment he brought these home for me to use.
Wait, is that her pelvis? Is that her ribcage? Is she still with us? Is she dead? This is really scary… And why did she have so many X-rays? Was she ill? Was she a hypochondriac?
We don’t know, and now she’s dead. I think every time she went to the doctor and complained she was given an X-ray. They’re all from the ’80s, and the films look so fluid, it’s a kind they don’t make anymore. Maybe she just did what she was told.
There’s a history of mother-in-law paintings. Larry River’s Double Portrait of Berdie (1955) comes to mind. What was your relationship with your mother-in-law? Does it mean anything to you that it’s her, or is it purely visual?
She was a beautiful woman well into her 80s. As she aged she reminded me of the way Paul Cadmus looked when he was old, she had very regal bone structure. She was like a character in a Dawn Powell novel, and late in life a terrible alcoholic. They’re clearly portraits, of her, of me, and of lots of stuff between. And like the work in the show, using them is a way to incorporate my biography.
One of the most interesting things that I’ve uncovered about you today is your relationship to the figure and these X-rays take it to a whole other level. These are portraits and they’re really aggressive, which is not what I was expecting. There’s a lot of anxiety in the heads. They’re not calm. They’re challenging and have a lot of pain in them… It’s a side of your work that I didn’t see in the exhibition. How did you make the faces? Do you paint on top of the X-rays?
That image was initially formed from pouring bleach and acetone on an X-ray, and this unsettling face came out of it. I photographed it with my phone and then put it under the sink to stop the process, and to my horror the image washed away, so now I use the photo, and paint on top of it.
Do you relate your work to the work of Sigmar Polke? It seems your work shares the alchemical properties: the way he used chemicals and chemical reactions. Also there’s the mixing of abstract and figurative imagery, layering and reaction, hallucinations and dream images…
He’s so important to me, because of his attitude as much as anything. He moves through so many materials and ideas, there’s a voraciousness in his work towards subject matter and experience. He’s kind of a beacon.
This one has a skull in profile in it. Earlier we were talking about Renaissance portraiture. Do you want to go into that further? They have a quiet dignity that reminds me of Piero della Francesca’s Portrait of Battista Sforza (ca. 1465–72) or Botticelli’s Portrait of a Young Woman (ca. 1480–85).
The profile, and the scale of the profile to the composition is typical of Renaissance portraiture. In terms of a portrait, it’s interesting to show the inside of someone first.
This one has stencils in it too. It as though you’ve dressed the figure in one of your stencils from past works. Are you going to start dressing these X-ray corpses?
I might, but this stencil is special, it’s a laser cut stencil given to me by a student, it’s her design, and now she walks through the painting too. It functions as a skirt or lingerie, and makes it notably feminine. It’s like she’s in a mirror or dressing room.
I’ve never seen a head “appear” as a chemical reaction. In a way you’ve brought someone to life, which is what portraits do. Do you think of yourself as a portraitist? It would not be stretching it. Is this a direction that you plan to continue?
I think I’m responding to the materials first, and I don’t see myself as a portraitist. It might be finite with these X-rays, like my mother-in-law.
Brenda Zlamany is an artist working in Brooklyn, NY