Jenny Scobel’s paintings are mesmerizing. Looking at her pieces you experience a sense of timelessness. You can’t tell if the pieces have been around for a long time, but you know they will be.
Jenny has an uncanny ability to cast her subjects into this pseudo-historical realm without ever making their identities clear. In her series, each of her subjects appears multiple times in different settings, wearing different ensembles and doing different things, but all with the exact same face, at the same angle and in the same expression. Each of the personas is equally likely but equally mysterious.
Conceived in her New York studio, Jenny’s pieces have traveled all over the world but have found a special home at the local Thomas Erben Gallery, where they have been exhibited five times. Her paintings have also been featured in the Times, the Huffington Post, and the New York Sun. But Jenny’s Midwestern roots are apparent. Her hometown of Orrville, Ohio, might as well be neighbors-down-the-street to Anamosa, Iowa, the inspiration for American Gothic. Her work contains a similar heaviness as Grant’s famous painting: the weight of the secrets that can hide behind four walls when homes are spaced acres apart. The difference? Jenny’s women are depicted as multifaceted, even impish characters, eerily undisturbed as they travel from setting to setting whether they appear dangerously close to drowning or relaxing in front of colonial wallpaper. I had the opportunity to talk with Jenny about her subjects and illuminate some of the mystery behind her intriguing characters.
How do you choose your subjects?
There’s no “always” in any part of the process – what comes closest to being consistent is choosing the subject. It starts with a face. After drawing the face I decide on an image for the body, either by finding images on the Internet or in books, or by putting on a dress and photographing a position that feels right for the face. Then that composite decides what’s in the background.
How do you recreate your subjects’ faces over and over so precisely?
There’s a fixation, both knowing it can be done better in a new piece and not wanting to let it go. I’m the type of person who has four of the same dresses in their closet.
Why muted colors and undersaturated tones?
They’re pencil drawings with stains of watercolor or oil paint or both. I’ve tried recently to do straight oil paintings, adding more color, and found my strengths are better suited to drawing. Part of this may be because the pencil drawing creates a consistent surface in tone and depth. It adds a cohesiveness, a push-pull from the darkest a pencil will go to the white of the surface below; still it’s all about shades of grey. I add color at the end. It’s a quick process, one I love.
Talk a bit about your Katherine Russell series. What did the last man take?
Katherine Russell was married to Tamerlan Tsarneav, the Boston bomber. She worked 60 plus hour weeks as a home health aid while Tamerlan stayed home with their infant daughter. The image of her comes from a photograph police took after the bombings. Her face is compelling for layers of reasons. First, it stands on its own. There’s a beauty that’s accentuated by her unadorned expression. Second, it’s taken at a time of extreme stress yet there’s an apparent composure. While no one can know what goes on in a relationship except those involved, and even then it’s often a guess, it’s very unlikely she knew what her husband and his brother were planning. As the only one not dead or in jail in that household she would have been an easy target for a public needing justice. That she’s living a private life is remarkable. I’ve tried to make my work meaningful, and by doing that it needs to speak about experience. The most significant part of my life has been more about what’s happened to those I’ve loved than what’s happened to me. Life is for the living. In this painting, it’s what the last man took, and what tenacity gives back.
What the Last Man Took (2013)
Have you ever done a series of self-portraits? What challenges did you encounter?
One or two pieces, but they’re not very compelling. The better work is abstract, to use the word loosely, where signifiers point toward different directions. Doing a self portrait puts too much emphasis on the self, and I’m not that interesting and certainly not that confident. For others it’s different. Cindy Sherman, John Coplans, Frieda Kahlo are artists of the first order.
Is it easier to paint people you know or don’t know?
There comes a time when the overall painting matters more than the person depicted. Face shapes might change depending on what’s happening in the background or dress. Often eyes are nearly imperceptibly moved farther apart than normal and mouths are slightly widened. These changes often make it easier to paint people not known. But there are occasions when an ephemeral quality of a friend is the objective. The person is always the protagonist in any case.
Is it wrong to compare your work to caricature?
No. I don’t see them that way, but it’s not wrong at all. If it’s how others perceive it I might learn something. Change the work accordingly, or not.
What do you want people to feel when they look at your work?
The same way one feels when looking at a Velazquez. I hope it’s honorable to aim toward the top. Even if I’m barreling toward certain disappointment, I prefer to jump toward the high bar. However, at the same time, in the back of my mind it’s the garbage test. Would someone, not knowing or caring about art, feel compelled to get it out of a garbage bin and take it into their home?
Where do you find inspiration? Are there any artists you compare yourself with?
Kerry James Marshall is my favorite artist. I lived in Chicago for a brief period – he’s the only artist I’ve ever stalked. Twice I drove to his house and knocked on his door. He wasn’t home and I don’t know what I would have said if he were. I’m shy by nature. He’s just that great. I needed to stand in front of his door. The knocking took guts. My work does not compare to his and if it improves it should compare less. That’s if it ever gets to be anywhere as good as his. Sometimes I exchange what he says about race with what happened (or happens) to women. There are comparisons there.
How did your hometown of Orrville, Ohio, influence your work?
I was born in Orrville down the street from my grandparents’ house – where my sister now lives – but my school years were in Mentor, Ohio. I had a happy small town childhood; a mother, sisters, and a brother I loved above all else. We’d spend summers at my grandfather’s dairy, which was connected to a rather magical tree farm. Circumstances turned rocky around age 16, as things sometimes do. All of it together is what the work is about. Central characters are turned forward and backgrounds go in a variety of directions. I had to leave Ohio. Even though at one time it was the world to me I now find it difficult emotionally when I visit or just drive through. Nevertheless, it’s the baseline for all that followed.
What projects are you working on now?
I’ve been working on a group of six paintings. Three pieces use Katherine Russell’s face. In one she stands in a moiré jacket with a herringbone skirt, both hands holding something. The wallpaper behind her, tinted pink, is shaped with an organic, bulbous, and undulating pattern.
Three others are based on a photograph I took of a woman who works in a local diner. In the photographs she’s wearing diamond studded earrings, a nose ring, a shockingly colored orange scarf wrapped around her hair, and an oversized Red Sox jersey. Perfect. I’ve taken her face and added other elements. In one piece she stands formally dressed in front of an explosion. Two hawks, a Sharp Shinned and a Coopers, are in pursuit above her. It’ll be titled ‘the breakup,’ or something like it. I threw away the first three paintings I did of her – they didn’t do justice, I couldn’t get the structure right. It’s sometimes necessary to use the same face repeatedly, just to learn how to do it. I wish I were a natural, but I’m a grunt.
Is it better to ask permission or forgiveness?
Where can we find your work now?
For fourteen years I was with a gallery that took work to major art fairs. There are pieces in a number of collections. Several months ago I decided to take a break. It was time. I’ll look for a show when I have at least fifteen new pieces I’m proud of. For now I’ve been selling independently. I was in a group show last month curated by the great Phil and Sue Knoll for the Geoffrey Young Gallery in Great Barrington. And thanks to you, here with this article.
Find more of Jenny’s work here.
Images © Jenny Scobel
Katherine Russell (2013), Ad Litem damask (2012), Pink (2006), the narcissist’s girlfriend (2015), Dickcissel (2010), Detractor (2013), Helicopters (2007), Family Tree (2012) , Debbie Borden (2009), Mr. Wilson’s Wife (2013), Kelly (2015)