Words by Ryan Michael Commins
It’s something we all do: examining a powerful moment shared with a close friend. The difference in this story is that most of us don’t plunge into that moment, examining it constantly for days on end, ultimately rendering it onto canvas in oil so it is reborn into a life all its own. We certainly don’t line up these moments on a white wall for further examination by the general public and the art world collective alike. Yet, this is exactly what Jenny Morgan is known for. This twenty-nine-year-old New York contemporary artist has found a way to show us more than just the visual layer of this experience by revealing the complex underlying energy that existed between her and her subject at that precise instant. For Morgan, it’s all about the intensity of confronting the moment.
Years ago Morgan used colored pencils for her portraits until her high school art teacher told her that no one would respect her unless she learned to work in oil paint. At fifteen years old, this was the word of God so that’s exactly what she did. She found pleasure in perfection. But her realist style drew criticism when she arrived in New York for her MFA from the School of Visual Arts, which she completed in 2008. Professors and her fellow students alike labeled her approach as too perfect, lacking the startling electricity that seizes the viewer’s attention. She adapted her style by sabotaging technique, sanding it down and allowing the rich red she paints underneath her subjects to bleed through, a method both rewarding and painful but nonetheless evocative. Her breakout piece was entitled “Captured”, an oil portrait that marks her first steps towards what has become her inimitable style. She says that at some point during her process there is a moment where the work changes irreversibly as she drifts away from the source photo, unearthing something else entirely.
Technical accuracy had become merely a subconscious skeleton to hold up a more abstract outcome. This new technique became an obsession and the resultant portraits grab you by your ears and rapidly flood splendidly garish detail into your conscious. The jarring voyeurism of seeing someone frozen within an exposed intimacy — the true nakedness of a human being interacting with another, vulnerable and vivid. She exposes the bareness of humanity stripped of all psychic armor.
It starts from one photo chosen between anywhere from fifty to one hundred. She snaps her camera while speaking with her subjects about things that are theirs alone and unprintable. She purposefully calls on people very close to her and always at some turning point in their relationship, just when most of us would avoid this person. Her work is often described as haunting and for Jenny this is a rewarding response because she says she is haunted throughout the process. She purges this resounding energy into the canvas and it washes over the rest of us as we bring our own experience to the work. As she speaks to me of this, I notice that her eyes are a marbled mahogany and she says, “It’s all about eye contact.” I look back to an unfinished piece hanging on the wall, at the eyes fully realized and glossy, and I get that same indefinable feeling. It’s at this moment I realize that her work is an ongoing study on the surreptitious force of eye contact and what it does to us.
In the past , Morgan tried painting strangers — even painting porn stars at one point, for lack of available prostitutes — but something was missing. This is why she seeks out these personal moments in the course of human interaction, exposing herself as well as her subjects. These portraits of others are just as much a piece of Morgan as her equally compelling self-portraits. She has been commissioned by New York Magazine to paint celebrities including Courtney Love, Gwyneth Paltrow and Julian Assange, the latter an experience she notes as the high point of her career thus far. To put it simply the world is taking notice of Jenny Morgan.
Morgan has been living with an artistic identity crisis, an ongoing tug-of-war between the pleasure of painting realistically and the deeper catharsis of finding that subterranean treasure that exists in the abstract. This is her ongoing challenge but one she has embraced for the edification of her work.
“I think there are classically painted portraits where people can look at it and feel something,” Morgan says, “but the step beyond is much more interesting.”
Click here to see more of Morgan’s work.