"I am but one small instrument," 2009, Jenny Morgan, Oil on canvas, 64" x 41 1/4"
Jenny Morgan photo by Meghan McGarry / Courtesy of Plus Gallery
"How can I fuck this up?" That's the question Jenny Morgan asks herself as she begins a portrait. Starting with 50 to 100 snapshots of friends, often women, but not always, Morgan selects one that reflects no smile or emotion: the person is relaxed, with their guard down and a deadpan stare. A breakthrough came when she painted her first self-portrait, exposing herself nude to the camera and then on canvas. It was brave act on her part, inspired by the fearlessness she sees in the work of Jenny Saville. Morgan then attempted to paint porn stars and prostitutes, but she didn't feel connected to those women. "The work was insincere," she says. Since focusing on people she knows, as Francis Bacon did, her painting has become more genuine. But the emotional states she portrays are not necessarily those of the sitter. "I'm seeing the person as a structure to put my own emotions on," she observes.
Morgan's art career began in Denver, as a student at the Rocky Mountain College of Art & Design; after getting her BFA, she moved to New York in 2006 to earn her MFA at the School of Visual Arts. Her portraits are as much about painting as about a person. "I love to see the paint build and get luminous," she says. Morgan prefers oils, mixing colors with a knife. Her palette is primarily white with ochers and reds. She's now sanding away the luster to reveal the red undercoat on her #10 grit canvas, giving her portraits a sunburned quality. Often the distortions look like bruises and the sitter can appear beaten, but in essence they are coming to life through the layering of pigment on canvas, the sanding, the mark-making. Just as a body is made of layers of muscle, epidermis and skin, we see that a portrait is made that same way. The blood flowing through the veins, the red layers beneath the skin contrasts with the hyper-realism of a lopsided breast, the non-expression of a face, a finger gently tugging a lip, a drooping eye.
In From The Valley To The Stars, Morgan has painted one hand and forearm black, creating a negative space. The other hand is glazed yellow, yet features all the fine detail of her style. In We Are All Setting Suns, one hand is red and outlined in white, incorporating printmaking and drawing techniques. The other hand is missing its skin, and has been sanded away to appear blotchy red, while the face appears as if under water, or refracted by a lens: blurry eyes with long, dark, vertical shadows. The hair in a Morgan portrait is disheveled, somewhat fly-away. She reveals the loose ends that are never seen in a magazine ad, the awkward curl standing out from the head. It could be interpreted as bedroom hair. But there is a disengaged element to her nude portraits. One does not sense sex or narrative when looking at a Morgan painting. And though she chooses a photograph in which the sitter "is extremely uncomfortable" the paintings are not difficult. Other emotions rise to the surface. No matter how stripped away or bruised a Morgan portrait is, the luminescence remains: that, and the eyes, powerful, real, gazing out from the canvas. It is through the eyes that we see Morgan's emotion and her powerful fight to prove that painting is not dead and that portraiture can indeed be challenging, cool, and now.
Jenny Morgan's work was featured in two solo exhibitions in 2009, "This Too Shall Pass" at Plus Gallery in Denver, and "Abrasions" at Like the Spice Gallery in Brooklyn. Her work can currently be seen in the group show, "Mirror, Mirror" at Postmasters Gallery in New York, through May 8, 2010.