All contents copyright ©2009 Kathleen Jesse
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It has been problematic to be a painter. First there was the patriarchy “thing” in the 70’s. As a woman I was participating in a ritual whose very language, definition and evaluation was born out of a tradition that is not female; a tradition that has held woman up as artifact as it excluded her from her own authorship. Early on I would try to pass among my colleagues decrying that I hardly used any paint at all. In my attempt not to be a painter I developed an obsessive process of grinding down little Prisma pencils into plastered, gessoed or wallpapered surfaces, scraping and sanding the pencil away, washing the surface with only the barest amount of diluted acrylic, just enough to create a resist for the next layer of the same until I built up a collection of residual marks, all in an attempt to create a refined oil painting that was not a painting at all. I became adept at stretching a brilliant fraudulent Titian surface, a finely tooled translucent skin, over the painting’s cruder immediate beginnings and musings that smacked of a Rauschenberg lift. My friends argued that, nevertheless, I was a painter and that I made oil paintings steeped in the stench of tradition. So I tried harder. I made an attempt at installation, but it’s hard to make real things stand up, they tend to want to lean, be pushy and didactic. I tried collaboration, my friends said I didn’t share well, that I had a tendency to become despotic. Painting is so archaic; it’s just not cool. My friends now are involved with the high tech stuff: film, web design, digital imaging. I like their equipment, it’s neat. I like their techy-words and speech patterns. I envy them. I want to be them. I like their cloths. I tried but it’s just not physical enough. You can’t really touch the surface; you can’t scratch it, or smell it or spit on it when necessary. I paint because it is messy, it stinks, and it always has the upper hand. It is both marred and informed by its long, pompous engendered history. I don’t use painting as a vehicle for self-expression, I am not trying to reinvent it, But rather I turn to its conventions and dialectics grounded in the egocentrism, class structures and taste which underlie the dominant culture that I am apart of and inscribed by.

Yes, painting is archaic and that is what gives me hope. It is out of step, it is impossibility and it takes too much time to make one painting after another. A painting is not reproducible; it can’t change states and travel through electronic air, but must be perceived through its “thingness”, and like ideas, a painting is forever tied to its place of origin. A painting is a landmark mediated through its physicality and history. Maybe only painters can understand this, but you have to physically encounter a painting to experience it. Painters have finally become outsiders, we are not fast enough, and we can’t keep up with consumer demand and be cost effective. We exist in a culture that finds it difficult to talk about the physicality of things. I find this rather exhilarating.

Over the years my bizarre techniques for painting or non -painting have stayed with me, because those are the ones that I know; but, my reasons for making art have become perhaps more layered but far less complicated. When I paint I find myself wondering more about what I left behind or possibly never caught a glimpse of in the first place. When I paint I think of my mother’s girdle that she always wore, made of beige-pink, heavy rubber, and perforated with tiny holes like pores of the skin. Tiny holes reminding me of that material she used to call “dotted swiss.” The girdle was a family heirloom given to us by three auntie witches, a wedding garment, I think. The girdle came with an instruction manual, but by the time it was handed down to me, a page had been torn out so I could never understand what it was for or figure out how to put it on. When I paint, I think of my mother’s need to stay and mine to go. I think about so much of my life contained in nine boxes and with my two cats, my continual migration patterns, and the feasibility of buying an Airstream trailer. I think of all those years with my annual spring sojourns to California, Italy or New Mexico, dragging along rolls of unstretched canvas that somehow came into being along the way. My work has become a travelogue, not only a record of traveling through historical and family archives, but also, a mapping of my sense of location and relocation or maybe in the end dislocation. My work has been shaped by this sense of landmarks, the things that I see, and the people and ideas that I bump into along the way. Often the influence of place enters my work like a virus and wreaks havoc, disrupting everything, forcing me to throw out, compress, and refit the old assigning new meaning.

My Portuguese friend, Isabel, grew up on a farm. She remembers everything with her nose. She tells me about the smell of rotting tomatoes and the smell of chickens when you cut off their heads. I don’t think she had a very happy childhood; but when Isabel paints, she puts on her mother’s old rubber apron, lays her painting on the floor and with scrub brush in hand begins. I envy Isabel her apron. I know if I could but find that beige-pink, perforated rubber girdle or even the missing page from its instruction manual, I could slip away from my moorings and remember something long forgotten. I could pick up my brush and begin.

Kathleen Jesse