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Painting 'things' with Jenny Eden

We asked Jenny Eden some questions about her recent paintings, how she comes to create the work and where the inspiration for her practice stems from. 

Dograbbit (2018), oil on calico, 42x30cm

Jenny Eden's abstract paintings explore an abstruse inspection into a concept of obscured familiarity. Her notional paintings exist on a plane where the piece and the viewer are dependent on inference, with the painting living as an independent, self-contained being. Her practice is an introspective and contemplative one, as each piece is heavily connected to herself, in a type of mutual symbiotic relationship, where each painting inspires the next. We were instantly intrigued by Jenny's paintings and became even more so after reading about her emphatically considered creative process, providing insight into how she names her paintings, how she chooses the colours and what inspires her practice. 

Hi Jenny, great to be able to chat with you. Firstly, there has been a shift in your recent works from more gestural paintings to something with recognisable shapes and more familiar objects. Can you explain this development in your practice?

I think the gesture is still there, in some paintings more than others, but there has definitely been a move to something ‘known’ in the paintings in the last 2 years. The practice seems to have called for an attachment to ‘real world things’, albeit in odd ways where the ‘painted-thing’ is not completely clear.

This development has emerged because I am spending more time getting to know the paintings, looking at them, writing about them, and understanding their relation to internal and external material experiences and ideas. Generally I think I’ve been using my time differently too, taking longer to make a painting and finding more productive ways to combine studio time with teaching and my PhD research.

In some paintings, the gesture has condensed into what I call ‘painted-things’. The marks are still present but they are densely packed and smoothed down to make a soft surface or plane. I am interested in how these planes form a ‘thing’, and exist as separate fields of coloured paint, meeting down the centre line (like in the painting ‘Space-time’) to give the illusion of a ‘thing’ – i.e. two potential solutions in one painting.

I’m really excited by the prospect of the ‘painted-thing’ sitting between being a ‘some-thing’ and falling away into ‘no-thing’ (AKA a collection of painted marks or shapes). I imagine this scenario as a simple line drawing of a pointed mountain (or an upside-down V) where one face signifies ‘too much-representation’ and the other face a collection of chaotic painted marks. In the painting process I (metaphorically) scoop the painting and place it on the pinnacle of the mountain where it can look down at both faces. Sitting there, the successful painting wobbles rapidly, it fluctuates, but even in this precarious position it is secure and benefits from the slight movement. This is because the painting is not one thing or another, but neither and both at the same time. It sees both faces and we see those faces through ‘it’. It’s strange to articulate this imagined scenario but working these things out in writing assists the painting. It’s an idiosyncratic thinking process that helps me navigate, locate and recognise a successful painting and a painting’s potential.

I suppose I should also say something about the kind of ‘things’ I’ve painted recently. However, in line with what I’ve just said, identifying the things is not possible since they are not ‘things-in-themselves’ – note, I adapt and extend both Immanuel Kant’s and Martin Heidegger’s concepts of ‘things’ in my writing and language on painting (Kant, 1781;Heidegger, 1950). Rather, the things omit a ‘thingly-sense’ or, in the case of the atmospheric-spacious-field-paintings (the less ‘thingly’ and more gestural paintings), a ‘sense-aura’. Nevertheless, recent paintings have included animal-like things as well as ornamental or child-like objects such as stacked blocks, cubes and toys. I’m drawn to early and mid century children’s toys, plastic 80’s toys, weird objects, animal ornaments, strange creatures and things like that, so I guess they find their way into the paintings and nearly become these things!

"I guess I tire of colours, I get irritated by them, and seduced and obsessed by other ones."

In the sea skies, children play (2019), Oil on calico, 144 x 120 cm

We love the colour palettes you use in your paintings, how do you decide on your colour palettes and how important are they to the overall painting?

There are a few connected answers to this question. One painting always informs the next for me, and this often occurs through colour. I may have exhausted a colour, need to lighten the range, alter the mood of the work (sometimes in a radical way) or balance the practice overall by adapting my palette. I guess I tire of colours, I get irritated by them, and seduced and obsessed by other ones. If the general ‘sense-aura’ I want in a painting is not happening with a current palette, I’ll change it.

Alternatively I might have seen something ‘in the world’ which attracts my attention. This could be a coloured object, a piece of colour or collection of coloured things. I often photograph these combinations and follow up in the studio, or a take a mental note and weave it in somehow.

I am definitely responding to new colour at the moment too. I am calling it ‘new’ because I see these combinations in (contemporary) painting in a way I haven’t seen before. The colours have a synthetic origin – magenta pinks, violets and turquoises (mixed with whites, light blues and various yellows). They are sugary, mystical and emotive and, although fresh, they seem to revive an 80s palette. They are also used to render psychologically-driven and figurative content, characteristics in painting which are also re-emerging at the moment.

We'd like to know more about your painting process. How do you construct your paintings and to what extent do you consider your paintings to be an intuitive process?

The paintings are made through my ‘attunement’ to the relationship between myself and a painting in the painting process. This relationship, with its signs and cues, specific to each painting-relationship, is what moves the paintings along.

Having made a first mark or field of colour, I spend time looking and using ‘process notes’ to help me work out the kind of characteristics the painting is holding. It’s a bit like being with another person and finding out about them so that you can best ‘be together’. Indeed part of my interest, and research, lies in the anthropomorphisationof my paintings where I consider them separate material beings capable of having a say in their own development. This ‘New Materialist’ approach allows me to work with the painting psychologically, and consider less than conscious aspects of the relationship.

"Having made a first mark or field of colour, I spend time looking and using ‘process notes’ to help me work out the kind of characteristics the painting is holding. It’s a bit like being with another person and finding out about them so that you can best ‘be together’."

I might have spent a few sessions with a painting and have a ‘sense-feeling’ of what needs to happen to it; an application of specific colour, a kind of mark, a surface attention or thingly-quality. Sometimes I can think these ‘sense-feelings’ and new knowledge brings me back to the painting’s surface to make an intervention. At other times, however, I can’t think them and I have to work a priori, intuitively, and hope that my intervention will be positive for the painting, and move it in an interesting and useful direction. To answer your question, therefore, there is a combination of planned and intuitive action, depending on the context of the relationship and how the painting is presenting itself to me.

The psychoanalyst Christopher Bollas discusses his version of ‘sense-feelings’ within an unconscious and psychoanalytic context, calling the phenomena ‘the unthought known’ (Bollas, 1987). This concept resonates with my practice and helps me articulate those times when I know my method of intervention is appropriate but I have not yet brought this knowledge to consciousness.

How do you come to choose the names of your paintings?

I don’t find titling work an easy process and usually it is the last thing I do before a painting leaves the studio. Although I write alongside the process, the title of the painting isn’t something I’m considering whilst working – I wish it was! Also, the paintings change so much as I paint, so a title that seems relevant at the start would be pointless by the end. I do, however, find titles in my writing later on, especially when I have worked hard at understanding a painting. I may also find a title from something I’m reading which, I realise, has been a backdrop to the work.

Do you think the names change the way the paintings are perceived?

Yes probably, but there is no correct way to perceive them anyway. I guess the title adds another layer to the painting which could come to mind when looking at it or considering it afterwards. Having said that, I always think about something the philosopher Richard Wollheim once said, which I am paraphrasing here; if one’s intention for a finished painting and the viewer’s experience of it fall within a similar field of understanding, the painting is doing something positive. If the two are poles apart, then there is a less effective phenomenon taking place (Wollheim in Herwitz, 1991). I often think about Wollheim’s perspective on successful paintings and I guess the title has to complement the experience of looking.

Which artists are you currently being inspired by?

I’m flirting with the idea that contemporary painting may have pre-empted a need to ‘slow down’. Some of you might have seen the Slow Painting exhibition in Leeds Art Gallery which finished in January and included the work of Allison Katz, Paul Housley and Benjamin Senior, amongst other incredible painters. The exhibition sought to draw attention to different painting interpretations of ‘slowness’ – slowing down, taking time, meditating, being persistent, being consistent, not reaching destinations, all things discussed in the exhibition’s insightful catalogue essay ‘Take your time’ by Martin Herbert (Herbert, 2019).

In connection, I’ve been investigating my ‘conditions for painting’ over the last few years as part of my PhD research; my need for extended and uninterrupted time for painting, and the ‘slow reveal’ many of my paintings require. I’ve also had numerous conversations with students (fuelled by my practice and research, as well as the aforementioned exhibition) about the benefits of taking more time to make work, allowing paintings to unfold, and being relaxed about ‘ideas’ by ascribing them to the making process rather than the outset.

Also, like many others I’m sure, I felt a squeeze in contemporary life before the pandemic kicked in. A rush (everything is a rush), technology ping-ping-pinging, too many things happening for everyone, all the time, everywhere. Sure, I was busy, but this felt like something beyond my own experience, and more collective than that. I remember talking to my mum on the phone about this, and us pondering the situation. Then a bat happened..

So here I am, painting in a more provisional way, echoing the approach described in Raphael Rubinstein’s paper ‘Provisional Painting’ (Rubinstein, 2009) mentioned in Herbert’s essay. And I’m looking at artists like Katherine Bernhardt, Josh Smith and Patricia Trieb.

Listening to a podcast on Talk Art with Katherine Bernhardt the other day (Diament & Tovey, 2019) I had one of those ‘epiphany moments’. I was painting a duck-armchair (I’ll explain about this in a minute) in a really intense pink, when I suddenly realised my act of painting was being driven by the knowledge of Bernhardt’s use of colour and the direct manner in which she applies paint. Instantly her work seemed so relevant for me. Where in my usual practice the aesthetic element of Bernhardt’s work might have been too (no disrespect) popular – she paints Garfields and Pink Panthers – on this day (a different kind of day amongst many different days) it was bang on the money.

Space-time (2020), oil on calico, 37x25cm

Due to the current global pandemic causing us all to self-isolate, have you found that your making process has had to adapt because of this?

My studio building is closed so I can’t do my usual practice at the moment – I paint in oil on calico or linen on a range of stretcher sizes from small (37 x 25cm) to large (1.8 x 1.5m). Now I am painting in watercolour on paper. In the first few weeks I found the change of medium quite difficult. Everything was different; the consistency of the paint, the way it went down on the surface and how it was absorbed, and the colours themselves. I couldn't translate my ideas as well as usual and this became very frustrating. Working through this situation I realised I needed to better understand my medium and adapt what I was painting to suit its idiosyncrasy. Now the work is generating differently and I am involved in a kind of sideways extension to my usual practice.

The paintings are much quicker. I’m currently making a series of rather strange animal-like paintings in single colours, sometimes directly on a smooth hot-press paper surface or on a rough cold-press surface primed with watercolour and white acrylic. I’m really excited by these paintings and I’m intrigued by how this work will play out in the oil paintings when I’m back in the studio. At the moment the ‘things’ I’m painting are duck-ish, bat-ish (yes, really), and kangaroo-ish, and they are merged with objects like armchairs, houses, presents and plants. Listing them here I guess the objects are ‘homey’ things, but the incorporation of an animal seems to disrupt the pleasantry making the paintings elfish and freakish. These ‘painted things’ are filling most of the paper at the moment, they’re busting out, immediate and perverse. I’m not really sure what’s happening but I’m running with it.

You can find more of Jenny on her instagram @jennyrutheden or on her website

Jenny's references:

Bollas, C. (1987)The Shadow of the Object.New York: Columbia University Press.

Diament, R. & Tovey, R. (2019) Katherine Bernhardt (NYC special episode).Acast. [Online Audio] [Accessed on 18th April 2020]

Heidegger, M. (1935-36) The Origin of the Work of Art, in Young, J. (2002) Off the Beaten Track.Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp. 1-52.

Herbert, M. (2019) Take your time, in Herbert, M. & Judah, H. (eds.) Slow Painting. London: Hayward Gallery Publishing, pp. 6-15.

Herwitz, D. (1991) The Work of Art as a Psychoanalytic Object: Wollheim on Manet.The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, Vol. 49, No. 2 (Spring, 1991), pp137-153.

Kant, I. (1781) The Critique of Pure Reason (ed. 1997). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Rubinstein, R. (2009) Provisional Painting. Artin America, May 2009. [Accessed on 19th April 2020]

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