Perfect Illusion

From Art Guide Australia, 2 May 2018
by Varia Karipoff


“When people look at my work they think they’re so real, they’re portraits of people. But in actual fact, they’re not.” – Jan Nelson

Jan Nelson is well known for her sleek, bright, hyperreal paintings and sculptures of children and young adults. Viewed from a distance, or on a screen – as we are becoming increasingly wont to do when we view art – the paintings have the surface polish of screen-based imagery. In a contradictory way, given their realism, they look very much unreal.


What strikes you first when you walk into Nelson’s backyard studio is the contrast of her workspace to the paintings produced there.

You enter a controlled gloom. “I keep the light low,” says Nelson, “it comes in from the north and is incredibly difficult to work under, so I prefer to work under artificial lighting.” Near the entrance, there’s a shop mannequin wrapped in plastic and a light-filtering purple cloth sagging over one of the windows. The air is rather close and tinged with oil paint and turpentine.

“I’ve worked in this space for, I don’t know, since ’89. I moved from Flemington to here. This was a shed at the back, I did it up a bit just to start working and that is the way it stayed unfortunately.”

The studio, as Nelson puts it bluntly, is “ falling down, and when it rains it just pours in. I have to move all the work away from that particular wall.” The only sign of 2018 is an Apple computer stacked away in a corner, away from the mid-century cabinetry under a window. The rest of the studio has just a touch of 1990s grunge about it. Of course, Nelson would pull the shed down if funds and time would allow, but for now, unruffled, she says, “It’s OK, I work cheaply and alone.”


Nelson begins work on a project by first setting herself a task; a plan that is not so much carefully laid out as compartmentalised. This level of organisation and development is critical – she’s writing a PhD delightfully titled Lasagne Composting: Strategies for making paintings in a technological age. Working in daylight hours, a suite of paintings takes a year to come to life.

This process of codifying seeps into her very act of painting. “I work in strategies all the time – I’m very analytical and so I see it as representation and then performative strategies for making which is mark making, colour, surface and labour. It’s broken down into these different layers and I do actually think of them separately when I make a painting.”

As her PhD title suggests, the complexities of the digital age are very much part of the methodology and raison d’être behind her practice. In particular she looks at the “idea of the infiltration of [technology] in our lives increasing and how it’s changing our neurological pathways.”

The act of making a painting for Nelson is to face off with this phenomenon. Where the internet can be seen to rob an image of its historical markers in order to manipulate its contextual meaning, the act of painting for Nelson restores them through its labour intensive making and is used to anchor the simulation back to something intrinsically real.

“Technology gives us a kind of standard. That’s my process really, I make the standard of technology; whatever technology gives me, I do it.”

That standard is a level of perfection and finish. Though Nelson doesn’t see her work fit the framework of hyperreal painting. “If you look at a hyperreal painting, they’re often done with acrylics and they’re trying to get a Chuck Close kind of idea of it. I’m not like that at all, I’m not trying to perfect the person; I’m just trying to perfect the screen, and the file, whatever the file does.”

“Whatever appears on the screen, I get those measurements and I send them o to the stretcher maker who makes them to exact measure. Then I bring it back and I use primed linen, with about three layers of oil primers. Then I prime it again so it’s perfect.”

The children in Nelson’s paintings are not real however; they are composites taken from photo shoots. “I’ll feed those into the computer, I’ve got a library of images. Then I’ll just start, and I’ll take the head from one, body from another, that arm. And somehow in my own psyche, something comes out. I’m trying to tap into the things that I’m absorbing from the world.”


In Nelson’s latest body of work, Black River Running, the portraits of children literally wear the marks of the encroaching world. A pink-haired tween wears a dress depicting a nuclear explosion. In another painting, the same girl wears a t-shirt with a Guy Fawkes mask, popularised by the 2005 film V for Vendetta and appropriated by the hacktivist group Anonymous. It is difficult to judge whether they are aware of the world they are inheriting, their eyes don’t meet the gaze of the viewer – that is the job of toys that the children hold. Perhaps there is a clue in that these are real toys painted from life as opposed to the children.

Nelson admits that for her the question of authenticity is inescapable, “I’m always asking that one question, what’s real?”

Instead of answering it, she is alerting the viewer to potential speciousness. This comes back to the innate riddle of hyperrealism. There’s a “gap that opens up between looking at a distance at it and then as you get closer you kind
of realise, this is something else, and then when you get really close you can look into and you go, oh shit this is actually made by someone’s hand.” Nelson discusses her interest in analytical psychology. As well as plush toy companions,
she has adorned the children in her paintings with protective gear. Headphones came into her paintings a long time ago. “This idea of silence is quite big in my work because I grew up with a profoundly deaf sister, and so I was her voice in lots of ways. When she was young, there was incredible frustration when she couldn’t communicate. She would throw tantrums, and quite extreme tantrums, and it was anxiety about trying to live in the world.”

Linger closer to the bright canvases and colour will become difficult to ignore. Nelson intentionally amps up the colour until it’s overwhelming. “I’m really interested in intensities and how we cope with them.”

Photography: Jesse Marlow
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