Jennifer Nehrbass takes unique command of images and identities portrayed through media and applies them to her own narratives. Elements like textiles, color, and design provide the context for much of the visual information of her work. She applies a visceral relationship with images through using collage to inspire her large-scale paintings that reflect manipulation through the reconstruction of form. By gathering information from her surroundings, Nehrbass creates warped realities that allow viewers to have new conversations with familiar images.
We recently saw her work in exhibition with 11 other artists at Circuit12 Contemporary in Dallas in Mysterious Muck, displaying multiplicity in contemporary art. The show is on display through January 30th in Dallas, Texas.
What is your first memory of identifying yourself as an artist and how has it grown since then?
My earliest memories always included creating things with my hands whether it was stitching a scene on fabric, creating clay dioramas or painting anything that was available. Self-identifying as an artist has its ebbs and flows. My high school self would have said I was an artist. The years working in design I would have said no. When I quit my full time employment to go to graduate school I remember the difficulty of voicing the proclamation, “I am an artist”, when asked what I was studying. Just being creative or talented in a certain medium isn’t always a qualifier for being an “Artist”. I still prefer to call myself a painter.
How has your work changed or developed from educational influences while studying at a university?
In my undergraduate years I was drawn to all elements of design, especially to fashion and textiles. A well-conceived jacket or elegantly designed chair inspired me to think beauty was possible in all aspects of the day to day. After years of working in the fashion industry I was reacquainted with my love of painting. I realized to push my work conceptually, graduate school was my only chance. It gave me a gestational period to concentrate on nothing but my work. Intellectually graduate school helped me to formulate a personal dialogue I could use to talk about my work. It showed me the power of self-editing.
After your time in academia, do you still encounter elements of design in your everyday life that provide inspirations to your work?
The beauty of inspiration is that it can come unexpectedly. A bright blue sneaker, Mexican pottery, a vintage gold belt can find their way into one of my paintings. The paint departments at hardware stores scornfully turn their backs when I take handfuls of sample paint colors. The offices of my doctors and dentist are targets for magazine thievery if I find an interesting advert or photo.
Your paintings are very unique in that the forms appear much like manipulated photography or abstract collages, yet are oil paintings. What attracts you to using oils and executing them in this way?
I have always looked to photography as inspiration. I love the way photography can simultaneously flatten and abstract an image. I am not interested in painting from life. I find that notion outdated and stifling. We live in an image driven culture with a supply of photography that is fluid and plentiful. The use of collage allows more immediacy to the work. Ideas can come and go without the months of commitment that some of my paintings require. I tried to create collages entirely in Photoshop but I found I didn’t have the patience or the skill to do so. I finally decided to use the computer as a starting point and finish with the cut and paste approach. Above all I am a painter and there is a language to paint. A flat area of color can create meaning as much as the photorealism used in the figure. I still find it a thrill to see if I can paint elements I have used in the collage. Painting allows me to play with scale. Collage can be limited by the printer size or the size of the found image. Painting also can have a seamless effect that is harder to achieve in collage. Hard lines can be minimized or emphasized depending on the desired look.
Above all I am a painter and there is a language to paint
You have a great dedication to your practice and have taken command of your artistic language. Beyond this, what challenges do you face in your work, and what steps do you take to get over these challenges?
Figurative painting moves in and out of fashion. The challenge is to stay steady with purpose and passion. I love painting portraits and figurative elements and I understand there will be an audience who just can’t embrace this element in contemporary art. If you follow art trends you lose your footing. The excitement of creating the next painting keeps me motivated despite lack of sales or rejections.
What attracts you to the media imagery you portray in your works?
I generally start with an idea of what I want the painting to look like or say. Often I respond to an art historical work that I feel would be interesting to reinterpret. I pull images from various sources including my own photography. What makes me respond to one image rather than another could simply be the color, the scale or the lighting. Many times I have the idea for the painting conceived before I have the found images. At other times the found image could inspire the painting. Each work has its own process.
How does your studio space help facilitate these ideas and how does it allow you to study these images in relationship to your paintings?
The space shouldn’t dictate practice, but I can see how living where I do has enabled my process to progress. I have a studio on my property. It’s a modest size but large enough to paint the scale I need. We have an enclosed yard with privacy which has enabled me in the past to orchestrate photo shoots with models or nude self-portraits utilizing the blazing New Mexico sun.
My experiences as a woman in the world are not unique, the more specific I am the more universal the experience. We all feel joy, terror, pain, rage and ecstasy.
I read you take influences from creatives like Cindy Sherman and Margaret Atwood and their ability to portray unique personas. In what ways do you share your identity in your works?
There are certain elements that are reoccurring in my works. The use of fabrics, textiles and textures are fun for me to paint and reflect my previous career in design. Every color, object, and composition is a choice an artist makes to create a work. Those choices are personal for me. Every part of the painting there are decisions made along the way. They are bits of me and what I have experienced. In the self-portrait works I felt it to be truer to use myself rather than a model or tear sheet. My experiences as a woman in the world are not unique, the more specific I am the more universal the experience. We all feel joy, terror, pain, rage and ecstasy.
What works or writings from these women have played the strongest influence in your work?
In previous works I looked to Cindy Sherman and her ability to transform herself into varied personalities. Rather than using found photography I created self-portraits that transformed me into other personas. These paintings pushed viewers to reconsider how women were viewed through art history and contemporary culture. Margaret Attwood’s strong feminist voice in “The Penelopiad” inspired a series of works I call my cameo series. This story paid tribute to Penelope and to her twelve maidens killed by Odysseus. It inspired me to examine how women are overlooked in history and the power of one’s voice to determine agency and destiny.
It is evident these works were successful in communicating with you as a viewer. What are you hoping viewers of your work take away from their experience?
I hope with every view of my work people have questions they didn’t expect to be asked. I hope they are poked and prodded to expand their notion of portraiture and narrative.
Last modified: November 25, 2015