In Jenny Dubnau’s Long Island City studio is a vertical mirror with adhesive stenciled letters spelling out the name “Jennifer.” I loved it because we share the same first name, and I was also struck by how playfully kitsch and reminiscent of a 1970s-80s childhood it felt. Dubnau explained to me that the mirror is not used to make self-portraits (she works from her own photography), but rather to analyze her paintings in reverse.
Dubnau’s portraits and self-portraits are unflinching—they examine our surface imperfections — but they also have warmth and an edge of biting playfulness that expose the fictions and transience of the faces we present to the world. Mid-size paintings of bust-format portraits, they muscle into our space, examining us as much as we examine them.
Dubnau grew up in New York City, and received her MFA from Yale in 1996. She was the subject of a 2011 exhibition at the Aldrich Museum, Ridgefield, Connecticut, and has shown at P.P.O.W. and Black & White Gallery in New York, Clifford-Smith Gallery in Boston, Bernice Steinbaum Gallery in Miami, and Bucheon Gallery in San Francisco. She is the recipient of a Tiffany Foundation Grant (2001), a Pollock-Krasner Grant (2004), a Guggenheim Fellowship (2004), and a NYFA Fellowship in Painting (2008).
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Jennifer Samet: You were born in England although you grew up in New York City. How did you start making art?
Jenny Dubnau: I liked to draw like any other kid, but when I began drawing from observation, it started to get different. I drew my bedroom, the house, my parents, my brothers. When I was in high school I started doing self-portraits in the mirror. I would shut the bathroom door and stay in there for hours. My parents would ask, “What are you doing in there?!” I was just drawing, making faces in the mirror, exploring what happens to your face when you make an expression. I went to the High School of Music and Art in NYC, but I didn’t start painting until college. I went to Cooper Union for two years and then I transferred to Barnard.
At Barnard I studied with Milton Resnick, who was probably in his 80s at the time. I was doing a still life in his class, of a bottle on a plaid cloth. I thought it was pretty damn good; I’d worked hard on it. He came over and took his hand and picked up all the paint off my palette. It was a big pile of smeared paint. He smeared it over my entire painting, and said, “Loosen Up!” I could have killed him. I still like the guy and think his paintings are incredible. But he couldn’t enter what I was doing, which was descriptive representational painting.
JS: You went to Yale for your MFA several years later. What did you do in the intervening time?
JD: Yes, I was out of school for a while, and I was 31 when I started at Yale. I took morning classes at Art Students League and worked from the figure. Then I started working from photography. That was the big change. I did paintings from family photographs. There were paintings of my brothers playing with a dog, the dog catching the Frisbee – kind of blurry, in motion. The sense of lost time in a photo is hard to deny. I made paintings from photographs of my mother, playing with me as a baby, and of my grandparents in Miami in front of a palm tree. I was looking at lots of Eric Fischl work at the time, and I can really see his influence in those outdoor figure paintings.
The found photographs were like emblems of memory. Then, in the late 1980s, I started taking photos specifically for the paintings. That’s when I started focusing on portraiture, taking lots of self-portraits and pictures of friends.
When I was coming of age and getting interested in contemporary art, the three artists I looked at the most were Chuck Close, Cindy Sherman and Eric Fischl. Cindy Sherman still is a huge influence — the idea of shifting identities — what you are feeling and thinking inside, versus what is visible on the surface in how you present yourself. With her, it takes a more performative and overt form, like inserting herself into a film still. It explores the question of, “Who am I really?” — shape shifting.
JS: Your parents are academics — scientists. What kind of influence did they have on your work?
JD: My parents are scientists, and so is one of my brothers, so I’m the odd one. But I wonder, because so much of my work is about observation, if that’s in its own way a scientific approach. Let’s not make it embellished, let’s not make it romantic, let’s not make it surreal. Let’s just make it super straightforward, and if there’s something weird going on, I’m putting it in, but only if it’s really there.
On the other hand, there is so much editing when it comes to making any realist painting. The challenge lies in making a kind of poetry about the way things really are without straying too far. I don’t change the color or the details too radically; I hew closer to the truth, although I guess it’s all a lie anyway. At a certain point, I learned that the more resemblance to the actual person, the better my painting is. The more verisimilitude, the edgier the painting seems. Whenever I try to stray furthest from what was actually there, it doesn’t seem right; it seems cheesy to me.
At Yale, I went to the medical school library and found autopsy photographs and photographs of organs to work from. There were things that were so disturbing you just had to immediately close the book. It wasn’t psychological, because they were cropped so you didn’t see any face. I decided I just wanted to paint what was inside the body. I think that’s really where I learned to paint — by painting mushy flesh. Oil paint does that very well — oil paint is mushy stuff.
That still informs the paintings: painting a flaw on the skin, or the way a lip feels as it starts to curve inside. How to shift how you are putting that descriptive paint on to make you think, “That feels like a lip versus a cheek.” That kind of thing gives me great joy and pleasure, and relates to the meaning of the work.
JS: Can you tell me about why you choose to work from your own photography, and what it offers your paintings?
JD: Everyone thinks photography is real, but it is just a fiction like anything else. Over time, I realized there are reasons that I paint from photography. It is distancing, yet paradoxically it adds to the emotion; it creates a kind of tension. You could photograph the sweetest person in the world and get a photograph where they look like they have bad intentions. I have chosen this fictional moment and a moment that doesn’t necessarily reflect what is going on with the person. I am projecting onto them, and as I make the painting, my style is going to intervene, along with whatever I choose to emphasize. It is all mediated and fictionalized.
That is enough – just portraiture. There is enough there to play with. Sometimes it even feels overwhelming. You start a painting and think, this is what I want to go for. Then it spins out of your control. When you finish, you realize it is something different than what you planned to start with.
There is a random quality to photography. Something that could be a mistake becomes the emotional fulcrum of the whole thing. These elements may not have been planned. In the case of my work, they may have been accidents of my not-so-great photography skills, where the light was shining on an ear, for example, making it the most brightly illuminated part of the painting.
In Roland Barthes’s book, Camera Lucida, he discusses the concept of the “punctum,” which is a moment of wrongness and weirdness. It is related to photography, but painting does that wonderfully in its own way. There could be some jam-up of colors, or the way a black outline goes over something. I want there to be subtle weirdnesses. Also, I unconsciously make mistakes in the painting process that became important. Sometimes they make it pretty far into the process, and I realize I like them.
JS: Your portraits tend to reveal the imperfections and flaws in people’s faces, but the backdrops are very neutral. I know that when you photograph them, you set the subjects under harsh lights in front of your studio walls. Can you talk about what you choose to focus on, and your models for this in art history?
JD: I love Jacques-Louis David’s portraits, like “Portrait of Countess Daru,” (1810), at the Frick Collection, New York. David has a lot of empathy. The Countess wants to look pretty; she’s got a bit of a receding chin. It is like David is thinking, she may not be the brightest bulb, but I’m going to paint her with all due respect.
Also, I am interested in the portraits being depicted in “artificial” arenas – where there is almost no context. Manet’s “The Fifer” (1866), where the boy is just fifing away in a gray cloud, is almost surreal. Chardin’s “Girl with Racket and Shuttlecock” (c. 1740) is in her gray cloud, and it’s like, “You’re not really going to play badminton now, are you?”
JS: Do you think of the self-portraits as a form of exposure?
JD: When I started the painting “Self Portrait Shrugging” (2014), I thought, “Do I have the courage to do it”? It felt like too much: showing my fifty-year-old self.
But I was compelled to do it because I felt the image had beauty.
After I painted it, I didn’t see it as quite as simply psychologically baring. I see it as private in some way. I think it is also sexual. Like “Hey, I’m not too bad! I still got something!” This is how a fifty-year-old woman looks, but she’s alright. In the painting, she seemed to be in control, but I don’t think I was when making it, necessarily. Confrontation and aggression are also a part of it. Her body pops out of the picture. She is muscling into your space.
An element I feel is present in all the paintings is a real psychological tension. We live in tense times. We know that we might really be in the process of destroying the world. The economy sucks. We are all on the computer all the time. We have anxiety about that. We can’t really focus. Are we really connecting to one another? All of that must be reflected on our faces.
I was looking at a Hans Holbein drawing and noticing how tense it was. I have been reading the historical novels by Hilary Mantel about the court of Henry VIII and the English Reformation. I was thinking how the courtiers depicted by Holbein could have been burned at the stake at any moment, if they were on the wrong side. Holbein’s drawings are all about an incredible tension at the edge. They are almost being pulled apart. You see it in the set of their mouths – that feeling – “Don’t send me to the stake!” I am interested in what is swirling around in the culture – politics being inscribed in the face.
I loved the recent Maria Lassnig retrospective at MoMA PS1. The paintings are about ugliness, but they are beautiful-ugly. There is a nude self-portrait as an older woman—“You or Me” (2005) — with one gun pointed at her head and the other gun pointed at the viewer. You wonder, “How the fuck did she come up with that image?”
I do want my paintings to be unsettling. I think many of George Condo’s paintings are great in this way: those buck teeth and googly eyes! In my work, I want subtle, disconcerting details to keep you there. I want people to see things like the way razor burn feels.
JS: Can you discuss the issues of skill and craft that arise when we talk about realist painting?
JD: I think in the contemporary art-world there’s a much-discussed suspicion of what we call “skill” when it comes to contemporary painting, particularly realist painting. I find that to be a problem, because terrific art can look loose, tight, careful, or sloppy: there’s no one “legitimate” style. Some people still project the whole history of academic painting onto representational painting made today. But sometimes, you look at representational painting and realize it is haunted by nothing, and that’s really exciting to me.
For example, Alice Neel’s work is not haunted; it is about as crisp as biting into a fall apple. She was doing what she wanted to do. She knew about history and loved painting, but there is no painting that looked like hers. Or, I think of Catherine Murphy’s painting of the moon, placed symmetrically on the canvas, framed by trees. She stood out there and painted the craters of the moon. It’s like she was saying, “No one can tell me I can’t paint the moon if I want to.”
Although some might find my style to be what is known as “skillful,” when I look at the paint in my work, it seems kind of clumsy. But, I want that. It is almost like a blind person stumbling forward, trying to keep hitting it with a slightly different color, trying to adjust a curve so that it looks like an ear. It is amazingly trial-and-error, but it actually goes quickly. Making something look real is easy, once you learn the tricks. It’s easy to make something look shiny, to make an eyeball look like an eyeball. And it can be very pleasurable. The hard part is making it look beautiful and compelling. The trick is: can you do it poetically?
There is some work I’ve done that feels too rendered or airtight. It starts to feel like just illustrating an idea. I want my painting, my description, to feel like taking risks, like when you are running fast across ice, and almost slipping, out of control, but you are remaining upright. I am skating on the edge with it, and I want the viewer to feel like they are skating on the edge looking at it.