Painter Jennybird Alcantara is best known for minutely detailed oil paintings filled with a symbolism that draw the viewer deeply into a world both strange and beautiful. At its core her work has a dreamlike narrative that emanates from a central figure, encouraging us to contemplate the complex interconnectedness of opposites as seen through the prism of myth, fable and fantasy.
She took some time from working on her upcoming solo show at Varnish Fine Art, Creatures of Saintly Disguise (June 9-July 28, 2012) to answer a slew of questions about the ever unfolding universe of characters and symbols emerging from her brush.
When did you know you wanted to be an artist?
I did art as a kid, like everybody does art as a kid. Officially I’d say, when I made this kind of announcement in my head that I didn’t want to be a veterinarian anymore, was probably around 11 or 12 years old. I didn't really know what being an “artist” meant, but I knew it was something I really enjoyed, that I was good at it and that I got praise for it from my parents.
My mom and her best friend were crafters. They would make cradles and sell them at these craft fairs and I’d paint the little teddy bear scenes on the front of the cradle. My friend Sheri and I started making little clay teddy bear dolls and little sculpted teddy bears in chairs and things and they let us have a little section of the booth. So from the time I was a kid I was always doing arts and crafts kind of stuff. It would be fun to find one of those cradles, "The first Jennybird sale!"
|Struggle in the Garden of the Porcelain Queen 2009|
Oil on Wood
40 x 60" (diptych)
Your work is heavily inflected with symbolism, flora/fauna and subconscious landscapes. What do you think influenced that?
My parents brought us up with religion... that had a huge influence. It started Catholic and then they did the whole Born Again fire and brimstone thing and I was in second grade so it was a major thing. As I've gotten older and reflected on it, it's had a lot of influence on my work; the fear of hell, the fear of death. I'm definitely drawn to religious paintings and that heavy iconography has always been really appealing to me.
Spending time outside was also a big influence. As a child growing up in a household with five kids, my mom sent us to play outside A LOT. I wasn't satisfied to just hang out there with my siblings and friends. I wanted to create worlds to play out our adventures, whether we were animals in that world or running through elaborate Alice in Wonderland chalk drawn 'board' games that took up half the length of our block. Creating and existing in a fanciful world was a constant urge for me and at some point I made a conscious decision to stay in that place using my artistic abilities.
You also use elements reminiscent of the Victorian era…
On one level it’s an aesthetic choice. And on another, I think it’s interesting how fixated they were on capturing peoples’ essences after they died in photography and memento mori jewelry. It’s aesthetically curious, and for me, going back to religious stuff, that kind of fixation on death and having a fear and morbid curiosity is in a way like me trying to process that fear. When I was a kid, maybe to help deal with the finality of death or maybe out of morbid curiosity, we would hold funerals for the dead birds and bees we’d find on summer days. I’d make a small box into a lovely flower lined casket for the deceased. My older sister would always be the minister and the rest of the kids and I would be the mourners.
|Nubile Mouse of the Princess Willow Tree Forest|
Mixed Media -- Doll
You make one-of-a-kind dolls in addition to painting. Dolls are usually pretty symbolic of childhood and innocence, yet your dolls are fey or mischievous, or troubled and playful… Why do you make them and how are they different than your paintings?
I wanted to take the character out of the painting and make something that you could hold and carry around, that you can put in different places and take out of its 2-D world. That was the original impulse. They become these little mini creatures, the characters become more personal than in a painting. I don't do a lot of them, only a handful a year. They're very labor intensive (not that painting isn't) but they're not valued in the same way so it's kind of a luxury to make a doll.
In your painting, you started out working with really intense bright carnival-esque colors. Looking back at your 2003 solo show works it was acid green and hot pink and black line/hard edges. Your palette has definitely deepened and become more complex. Do you think that was a gradual transformation or do you feel like there was a turning point?
Everything with my process is a gradual transformation. The hot, intense pink painting series I did was after the art school years where it was all blood red, black, orange, and yellow. Using “girlie” pink was a way to thumb my nose at myself, at my own seriousness of what art should be, especially as a strong woman, a feminist woman. One of the first series of painting that I showed were Victorian silhouette girls peeing on cupcakes. As for the bright colors, I don't know, I was trying to be maybe in your face a little bit.
I still paint really intense colors. My monochromes are so saturated. Over time I have become more attracted to a subtle color palette, but for me, I'll start out and the colors get really saturated. I love super super intense black. But I have gravitated to a way more complicated color palette. Denser and more detailed I guess.
Talk a little about your monochromes and works on paper… Often they appear to be studies of ideas that end up in your larger paintings.
|Don't Stir the Hive |
Acrylic on Paper
Some of the monochrome paintings that I've done have been an oil version of an acrylic work on paper. The paper pieces are so different because I can't work in the same way with acrylics as with oils. It becomes like watercolor or gouache on paper. So sometimes I'll have an image I really like that I want to represent in the same way. Most of the time the works on paper--which are complete works in themselves--are really studies for an oil. And they don’t ever look exactly the same as the oil.
I've gotten to a point where I'm trying to make every small piece I do just as interesting as a big piece. I've always had this thing about the big paintings. That they are the most important and everything else is just the supporting act. But I want each painting to be able to support itself. A lot of times I AM interested in just this heart that is composed of two animals intertwined. That idea in itself should be interesting enough to be its own small painting. In a way it is a study, but often it will come after the big painting. I'll love it and want to do it again. I think more often than not, it doesn’t work in the way you would think.
|Bo-Peep (2010) Oil on Wood|
Your trip to Italy in 2010... how much of an impact did that have on your art?
My husband likes to think it had a huge impact. I love Botticelli. But it's funny, before we went, I was afraid that I would go and just never want to paint again after seeing all these masterworks and I told a bunch of my friends and they just kind of rolled their eyes. But it had the opposite effect. Totally inspiring. To see works of art (in person) that I've loved since first seeing them, was really amazing so I definitely think that it had to have had an impact. But for me, I have to be further out to see. It's the same with any series of work that I do... sometimes it takes a couple of years out to kind of look back and reflect on it.
I was starting to do some more organic stuff in the series on the way to Italy (that I did for Mondo Bizarro) but that has grown a lot since then. Just seeing all that organic beautiful work in Italy, I've become more interested not just in the character and the world inside her, but in bringing that world out and putting her in a place. It's not just about her and what's going on in her head and her body. Putting her someplace, you know? I have all these things that are important to me and I make them work together. I like a painting to work from a distance and close up.
Your scenes are almost always set in "Nature." Why is that?
I like organic shapes. I've never been interested in straight lines and sharp edges. I think that obviously the natural world lends itself to that more than the man-made world. (The characters) exist in this surreal in-between place. Everything I put in my painting has to be there for a REASON. I'm really strict with myself about that, I don't waiver. I'm not going to just stick something (like a house) in there because it's “cute.” If I can't find a reason for it to be there, it won't be there and I won't compromise. Everything in my pieces (animal, person, object) does have a meaning. They can have individual meanings. It's not like there's a definite story, I definitely don't know what it is in the beginning. It works itself out along the way. But everything in there is in there for a reason.
When you start, is it figure first?
Figure first. And her face has to be, not finished, but she has to come alive (in the face) before the rest of the painting can happen. I'm really bad about believing that she will happen later, if she hasn't started out that way. Until I know for sure that she's "there" I can't really go forward. Sometimes that's a hindrance because I see she's there, but now what? But at this point, I start out with a basic concept about HER (pointing to small maquette on the wall) she was the original idea, but that's pretty much how I start.
|She Leapt into the Abyss to Find it Only Went Up to Her Knees|
Oil on Wood
The paths that you have winding in your works, where are they leading? To or from?
It goes back to putting her in a "place". And they are doing both... away and towards. I look at them as this girl on this journey in life and sometimes she's completely lost and they kind of represent a maze. I also like the idea of mystery and NOT knowing. Every painting for me has to have a window open where I can get through and have another meaning at some point.
An Italian writer called your work "The Eternal Feminine." What draws you to painting female characters?
This is the hundred thousand dollar question! All my gay guy friends are always asking why there aren't guys in my paintings. (sigh) It's taken me a long time to get to the place of admitting that my paintings are really emotional and personal. You know, going to art school in the 90's, it just felt like that wasn't allowed. If you were a woman artist you had to compete with the boys and competing with the boys means not being too girlie, not being too emotional, not being too personal... or at least it not showing it. I actually did have some male figures back then, but they were usually symbols, usually phallic. But I’m a woman; I'm using my own reference point. The paintings’ overall feeling for me are that they are about personal journeys, personal reflections, friend relationships and that whole external/internal self thing. It's not like they're just about me. I want them to be open so that you can (if you're interested) see yourself. And I didn't really understand that until I started showing and strangers would grab me by the hand and say "Oh my god, come tell me about this painting, this is my life." I literally had a woman say that to me. At that point, I said, "YOU tell ME what this is about. This is your life." And aesthetically I think the woman form is beautiful. I do feel like there are male elements. In this painting (Creatures of Saintly Disguise) the bear is male. Sometimes it's a female bear, but this one is definitely male.
|Creatures of Saintly Disguise|
Oil on Panel
Are your works mostly portraits? Why is that?
Yes, they're definitely portraits. For a long time, nine times out of ten, the eyes were always looking out, confronting the viewer and making clear, yeah, this is about ME. I'm looking at you! This is about ME here. Now, with this (Creatures of Saintly Disguise) series, she's still saying "this is me" but she's in this other place, she's looking away, she's looking up… You’re not in a one-on-one dialogue with her anymore; you’re looking in on her, her world and you don’t realize that you are that person; everything is the girl character, she's the largest figure in the landscape, and you are going to identify with her. So you really can't get around that it's all about her experience and, allegorically, it’s (maybe) yours.
The eyes of your main figures are always HUGE, why that aesthetic choice?
I think that part of it is "the eyes are the windows to the soul" and part is just the aesthetics of it, but the dolls had a huge influence on that. I love the Bobblehead Aesthetic. So the dolls had an influence there. The eyes have always been kind of big, but they've gotten more exaggerated with the dolls. The aesthetics of the dolls I LOVE, I love the big head. It's cerebral. The head is big because it's about what's going on inside there. In proportion, the body is small. I also love painting legs, so if I paint a really big head, her body is going to be disproportionately smaller than the head. As the canvas gets bigger, the heads get bigger.
You've done some of the classical bust portraits, but with the legs, you get a complete...
The complete picture, yeah, the complete person and identity. I'm so sad sometimes (looking at a bust portrait) -- what's happening underneath her? A lot of what I'm interested in too with all these crazy organic skirts and water skirts, is the idea that there's this girl up above and this mystery below and you're missing that part when that's not there. What's underneath there; and it's not even just about the legs, it's about what else is going on underneath.
Oil on Panel
Sometimes the eyes of your figures are closed, sometimes open, or sometimes one is opened and the other closed or there are two different figures…
The closed eyes are about sleep/death. Sometimes I don't want you to know if it's death or sleep or dreaming. It's just playing around in that world a little bit. If it’s death, I still want them to be beautiful, not grotesque and rotting. And sometimes, its not just 'her' sleeping, but a lot of times that character is closing her eyes to an aspect of herself or not looking at what part of her is doing, in that way getting to remain innocent even if another part of her is being mischievous.
When there are two figures, its two parts of the whole. I've been into duality for a long time. Part of that is my interest in symmetry... very convenient when you're into duality! But that can be very limiting, because there aren't just two parts to a person. I'm getting more interested in the multiplicity of the character. The last big painting(s) I did were really symmetrical and I knew I didn't want to do that with this series. There's still symmetry, it's not all catawampus, but it's getting more important to reveal more of the layers, not just the two.
Are you creating your own fairytales, your own mythology? Saints have become a big theme in your work recently...
|The Ascension of St. Dolly Deerheart|
Acrylic on Archival Paper
I feel like I've always been painting saints. I did this doll show a few years ago called "Carnival of Saints and Souls" and I was so excited because I felt like I was finally given permission to call my paintings or dolls saints and to put “Saint” in their titles. I love the religious paintings of saints with the glow around their head and El Greco's saints with their eyes cast to heaven. That's always been appealing to me, visually.
I'm definitely trying to create my own little world. It's this unfolding story. The work feeds into the next and the next. There are definitely continuous threads, but it's also constantly unfolding at the same time which is really cool. I think fairytales are like religion for non-religious people. As humans we crave knowledge and an understanding of our place in the Universe and stories are a way to relate us to other living beings -- Animals, people, nature--you crave that. Some go the route of the prescribed dogma or religion. But if you don't do that and still have that pulling inside you for wonder and things of a spiritual nature, then I think that those stories just present themselves perfectly for that.
I'm really into the hybridization of things that are interesting to me and trying to make them all work together in a way that tells some kind of story that is also revealing itself to me at the same time. It's not like I have all this knowledge and here I am putting it down for you. It's more "let’s see what happens next."
It's interesting you created this, not a belief system, but an alternate universe where your figures exist and so much of that is coming from the inside of the figures, little microcosms…
Acrylic on Paper
I had many paintings where it started out with just an incision. All you could see was the incision in the chest, for years. And then it opened up and you could see the heart, the anatomical heart and then the heart became the animal, composed. I think one of the first ones I did was of two birds composed together to make the shape of a heart. And then you were able to see a scene beyond—that was happening for quite a while—and then in 2010 the "protection" kind of came up around that, like in "The Dual" with the hearts becoming interlocked antlers. And then I have the snarling beast in the chest. It's like “here's the little world I'm letting peek inside, but BACK the Fuck off!” You know? It just kind of clicked that this was happening with each series. So I had this whole series about protection. There's this secret place inside of us, and I'm going to let you see a little bit, but now that's enough! Back off.
Now I have the world growing OUT of the chest. It started with "Reviving Ophelia" I think, with the deer leaping into the chest of the sleeping character and the fox with the little insect wings leaping into the chest of the awake girl. I thought, "That's really interesting. It was opening, opening, opening and now it’s spilling out.” It was this epiphany I had. That illustrates to me too that a lot of times it is this unconscious thing that is unfolding. It's interesting to me to look back in retrospect and see that.
In “Treacherous Gardens,” I had the nature aspect in the chest, too, like in the "Porcelain Queen." There were deer inside there drinking from a stream and another deer in the background, but they were monochrome. So that's kind of like the dream... for me, really, those little bits are like little dream images. So at that point the little deer in there was in the dream state.
Not fully realized?
Not fully realized and then it started coming out in “Reviving Ophelia.” So yeah, that was definitely a turning point, when that world started to come spilling out. And it also helped to become obsessed with these water skirts. The water came pouring out with the show I did at La Luz de Jesus just before going to Italy, "Swooning at the River of Oblivion". That was when the pools of water, the space started to come out of her.
|Swooning at the River of Oblivion|
Oil on Wood
Do you create your own meanings for the animals you use or do you work with existing definitions?
I think it probably a combination. The bear for example, usually either represents the dream state-- if there's a painting that has a lot to do with the unconscious, there is usually a bear in there--and sometimes a bear is protection, more of a lookout. Not too ferocious; just kind of chillin' out. I always think of the bear hibernating. I love sleep. When possible I try and do lucid dreaming and just get to that in-between state; in-between awake and asleep, to help clarify a concept, to help me see it. So for me, the bear is associated with sleep because of hibernation.
I do use kind of the accepted ideas of the animals... you know we as humans we try to put our feelings onto them, associate our own stuff with them so it's all kind of doing that. I use the deer ad nauseum. I’ve loved deer ever since Bambi and they're really beautiful, their bodies are beautiful. It's partially that. I like that idea of innocence and I like that if you try and mess with them, they can kick the shit out of you, let's not forget that. A more mischievous character will have the fox come into play. I'm really afraid of snakes but I like the idea of them. I've used their bodies with the rattle as a warning. I've used elements of them in the past and then definitely in the organics the snakes can be hiding in there, so they're not these overt serpents but if you pay enough attention it's there. Everything associates back to the character in the painting so for me it's like a warning, a protection thing. "Don't get too close" because it's not all just pretty and light. There's something dark in there too. The snake is a really good way to represent that. Even non-poisonous snakes can really scare the hell out of you.
Hybridization-- what's the idea behind that? Is it to imbue the character with those elements?
Definitely. I think that’s pretty much how it started, as a way for me to say something more about her, but also let it remain shrouded in a little bit of mystery. Taking on these strengths or aspects of characters. Sometimes she is that character; she is half bear. And then other times she's just trying to let people think she is by wearing the skins or antlers.
What does the red thread symbolize in your work? It is an element in a large part of your work.
I really have a hard time not putting a little bit of blood in a painting, not real blood, but the idea of it. Sometimes I'll hide one little drop of blood. Can I still get away with that, can I do that? The red thread is a way to symbolize that and just kind of that connection between everything else, the characters in the paintings. It's like a vein; somehow life. It's just this personal weird thing I guess that makes it personal as all hell and to show it's about all that... it's about life, it's about death, and it’s about all of that.
|Mary's Little Lamb|
Oil on Wood