At artist Jenna Gribbons 2019show at Fredericks and Freiserin New York, gallery goers squinted at a small canvas from mere inches away. The painting, titledStudio Break,is only 10 inches talland depicts a tender moment of foreplay, shown from one of the two nude womens perspectives.
This is the paradox of Gribbons work. The joy in looking comes with a sense that youre being invited into the most intimate moments of the artists life, but just as quickly youre reminded that you dont belong there.
I love trying to make the viewer self-conscious of the fact that theyre consuming this image, the artist tells Artnet News over video chat in July. Its really voyeuristic in nature.
Gribbon, who is 42, is part of a generation of figurative painters who traffic in radically sincere imagery shaped by years of sharing their lives online.It would be hard to imagine a description of her paintings that doesnt include the word intimacy. Thematically, its all over the artists work, sometimes explicitly so.
Her show at Fredericks and Freiser combined small-scale portraits like Studio Break with five- and six-foot-tall paintings of women wrestling against imaginary backdropsand of all of it sold.
Jenna Gribbon, Studio Break (2019). Photo: Cary Whittier, courtesy of the artist and Fredericks and Freiser, New York.
As we talk, Gribbon sits in her sons bedroom in Brooklyn. Shes wearing a faded t-shirt that says Torres, which is the name of the indie guitar-rock project of her girlfriend, Mackenzie Scott.
Mackenzie would be so embarrassed if she knew I was wearing this right now, Gribbon says, laughing. Shed be like, Dont show that!
Its a cute moment, but a telling one too. Scott is a frequent muse for Gribbons work, and theres a self-reflexivity to almost all of her cameos; Scott always seems aware that shes being watched.Take, for example, a painting in the artists new exhibition at GNYP Gallery in Berlin, which bears a title that doubles as a description: My girlfriend in a short skirt, a row of men between us.
Its about that experience of standing in the audience with all these men in the front row and just watching her being seen, the artist explains. Im really interested in this idea of seeing people being seen all the time.
Jenna Gribbon, My girlfriend in a short skirt, a row of men between us (2020). Courtesy of the artist and GNYP Gallery.
Gribbon was born in Knoxville, Tennessee, and had the artistic itch from an early age. She painted a portrait of her family on the first day of kindergarten that won a blue ribbon at the county fair. She went on to major in painting at the University of Georgia, where her output quickly began to bear the hallmarks of the work she produces now.
It was always figurative, always had a personal slant, Gribbon explains. I was painting people I knewfriends and loversand trying to draw from personal experience.
Gribbon saved up money scoring standardized tests and making cold calls to subscribers of a magazine called The Progressive Farmer before moving to New York in 2003. Then came another interesting pair of gigs: her first jobs were as a cocktail waitress in a strip club and an assistant at Jeff Koonss studio. The two experiences were kind of related somehow, she jokes.
Jenna Gribbon, Weenie Roast Wrestlers (2019). Photo: Cary Whittier, courtesy of the artist and Fredericks and Freiser, New York.
In 2010, Gribbon had a child with writer Julian Tepper. The couple lived in a second-floor apartment in Long Island City, Queens, while downstairs they ran the Oracle Club, a cultish literary salon and creative space. Gribbon had a studio there and continued to produce paintings, including one notable series that reimagined scenes from art history and attempted to undercut the male gaze by replacing the central figure with a large Xa metaphor for what we would soon know as cancel culture.
But mothering a young child and running a venue didnt leave much time for painting. The relationship eventually dissolved, and so did the salon.
Feeling lost after the split, Gribbon decided to reinvest herself in art, enrolling in the MFA program at Hunter College. I wanted to connect with other artists who were interested in what I was interested in, she says. I was also feeling like I needed to create some more opportunities for myself.
Jenna Gribbon, Watching her give/gives me pleasure (2020). Courtesy of the artist and GNYP Gallery.
It was a moment that proved to be a great inflection point in her career and coincided with a big change in her personal lifeboth of which are mirrored in her work from the time.
Around 2015, I started exploring my queerness, which I had never done, she says.I started seeing women and my personal life entered my work in a way I wouldve previously been uncomfortable with and wouldnt have considered had the political environment not revealed what it did in 2016.
She alludes to Trumps political ascendance and the attacks on women, the queer community, and other marginalized groups upon which it was predicated. Ive always made the paintings that I wanted to see, but then it became evident that there were paintings that people needed to see.
Jenna Gribbon, Working Mother (2019). Photo: Cary Whittier, courtesy of the artist and Fredericks and Freiser, New York.
Whereas Gribbon previously channeled her subjects through a filter of art-historical referents,tackling lofty topics like femininity and desire in a more abstract, quasi-conceptual sense, she was now distilling those themes into moments all her own. She started introducing herself into the picture, literally.
I wanted to reveal as much of myself as possible, she says. I was just looking to the material that was closest to me and considering how to depict intimacy. So I started making a lot of paintings of my girlfriend and my child.
Looking on as the subject of Gribbons sensual, expressionistic canvases discovers new love also feels like an exercise in watching an artist discover her voice.
Jenna Gribbon, M with a Tattoo Bandage (2020). Photo: Cary Whittier, courtesy of the artist and Fredericks and Freiser, New York.
Mackenzies so fearlessits one of her best qualities, Gribbon says. Its hard as a woman in general, because of the way were socialized, to be really bold in the way that you present yourself and your work as an artist. And shes helped me with that. Shes helped me be more bold.
She points to a 2019 painting called Mackenzies Lack of Interest in Gallery 827, which depicts her girlfriend walking past two large gilt-framed Old Master paintings at the Met. Thats about her lack of interest, which I love too, she says, laughing. I love how shes just like, I dont give a fuck about all these straight people and their romance.
Jenna Gribbon, Lunch Touch (2020). Photo: Cary Whittier, courtesy of the artist and Fredericks and Freiser, New York.
Instagram also became an important influence on Gribbon around this time. Both Gribbons work and her Instagram feed exude an effortless coolness. Her paintings often feel as if they were born from a camera phone photoand many actually are. Part of it is the perspective: Gribbons scenes tend to be oriented from a lower, hip-high angle, for instance. But more to the point is the way we use our little pocket camerasto spy, to flirt, to talk without words, to record those little quotidian snippets of blisswhich ishow the artist paints, too.
Im fascinated by the way we construct personal narrative, she says. For me that interest came because my life really had some major shifts and felt turned upside down a few years ago, and I had trouble making sense of who I even was and how I got here. So I started thinking a lot about the stories that we tell ourselves and how that plays out in the mind.
Jenna Gribbons new exhibition, Regarding Me Regarding You, opens September 10, 2020, at GNYP Gallery in Berlin.