Per­fect Illusion

Varia Karipoff
Art Guide Australia, 2 May 2018

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.” 

Process 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.” 

Projects 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 Arti­cle link: here


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