Jaclyn Conley is… What? A painter, most certainly. But she is also some sort of enigmatic machine, a black box of mysterious origin. The world feeds her morsels of information and sensation, which are somehow transformed by her machinery into a palpable energy which then flows into paint. She paints limbless children with their eyes closed, tigers falling through space, children sleeping in cars, sun drenched baby heads, and, more recently, American presidents hanging out with children. Over the years that I have had the enormous pleasure of knowing her, the work has become increasingly abstract, possibly in order to find something sufficiently difficult for her tremendously capable machine to process. Inquiring into the workings of such an apparatus might well be beyond current technological capability, but given that I tend to gravitate to things I don’t understand, I welcomed the opportunity to have the first in the Long Conversation series with her. Nothing in what follows solves the riddle of Conley’s enigma, but I did manage to glean some of her thoughts on everything from process to the state of the contemporary artworld.
BE: I want to start with a fairly obvious question: How did you become a painter? (While obvious it is also a question one that can hold a certain amount of significance for artists in their 30’s, who might have a stronger tendency than their younger peers to look back and wonder “how did I end up HERE?”).
JC: I’ve just kept painting. As an absolute introvert from the earliest days, it was a way to function; to get through and get by. I was always drawing and making stuff as a kid and then I went to art school rather than a liberal arts University. When I was there I choose a fine art over a design course stream and that dug me in a little deeper. I’ve never had a very broad skillset outside of painting and thus never left myself with a whole lot of options. It’s never felt like a choice because I’ve never given myself an alternative. I was really impractical in choosing a career path and that’s probably been an advantage. As a young person I was interested in a lot of different subjects and saw being an artist as a way to constantly learn interesting things without a definitive purpose or ends.
I also think pictures are the most interesting things and if you can make one or more really good ones, that’s a worthwhile use of a life.
I came from a real middle class, secular background but when I was young I approached paintings in museums like relics in a church. I developed a faith in these pictures from early on and I still come across work, new and old, as momentary revelations. I’m pretty die-hard. I have faith in very few things but painting is one of them. Bees knees level stuff!
BE: I think I’ve had similar ideas about how people become successful artists or writers or whatever: All they do is stick around! At least that certainly seemed to be the case in some of the parts of Canada where I’ve lived. Perhaps it isn’t as simple as that in New York. I like how you identify both a kind of inevitability, a sort of recognition that there aren’t exactly a lot of other options available to you, AND a kind of romantic attraction involving the quasi-divinity of images.
Of course, getting at HOW and WHY images are powerful, even in some kind of rough and ready way, is a very difficult task. Is it a question that interests you? I know some artists that are really into preserving mysteries, and don’t want to know how the sausage is made. It is sufficient to know that sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. Others are perhaps open to thinking of this, and trying to figure out the nature of this power. Which are you, if either?
JC: There are probably a thousand reasons why some images are powerful.
I like the slipperiness of images, how they’re not fixed. How they are open to fictions.
We can load/unload all kinds of stuff onto them. You can look at them at one point in your life and they tell an entirely different story than they did at an earlier time. Some works are better triggers. We want to enter them, they surprise us, they reinforce a sense we’ve had, they ask a lot of questions, they seem important… Part of me thinks that to find out how it works would be the end of it. If there were rules that could be diligently followed, it would be very boring. So you redefine what “works” means and start all over.
When I approach [someone’s] painting, I’m using more than the visuals to build my response. The artist is in there; whatever I know about them or think I do. Morality, beauty etc., the criteria that also play in aesthetics come into this. I think I don’t like rules; I get caught up in exceptions. My notions of “good” change.
I also think pictures are the most interesting things and if you can make one or more really good ones, that’s a worthwhile use of a life.
BE: I remember you mentioning something similar recently in another context, about being brave. You said about fear and comfort zones: “one of the most helpful things to do as a painter is to constantly be looking at painting/images. When you do this you realize that painters have been breaking the rules (and your understanding of these rules change) since the beginning and they continue to do it in ways that continue to be surprising and exciting.” For me this touches on some interesting philosophical issues, because it seems that the “rules” one encounters in painting are to a very large degree rules that have been either self-discovered or self-imposed. You paint, or create, until you find some limits, and you discover that you were unwittingly operating according to preconceived rules. Then you either choose to continue to follow them or abandon them, if you can. So, in a way, creative processes are a model for “liberatory” practices in general, in which we become aware of previously unconscious rules (in other words, ideology) and then are in a position to CHOOSE them, or not.
You also emphasized the importance of looking at other people’s paintings and images in general. Can you tell me a bit about the kinds of images you like to look at? Can you suggest which other painters are most interesting to you right now?
JC: I appreciate all different kinds of painters for all different kinds of reasons. I like work that presents something unexpected, something that isn’t easy or straightforward to deal with. I’m always finding new dead painters as well as living ones. It’s all over the place. The Bay Area guys, David Bomberg. I’ve been looking at Paula Modersohn-Becker’s figures. Norbert Schwontkowski, Nicola Tyson, Angela Dufresne, Kyle Staver, Lesley Vance, Patricia Treib. Al Held’s edges and implied spaces. Heather Guertin, Eisenman. All best seen in life but online searches are an easy way to revisit or come across new things. I love scanning paintings in high resolution sites like Google Art Project, getting right up closer than you could in a gallery or museum.
BE: (At this stage the conversation was interrupted by ideas from a separate conversation we were having about some recent quite abstract paintings she was working on using imagery involving U.S. Presidents with children (see below). I made some rather snotty, disparaging remarks about abstract painting in general and the silly, pompous gravitas with which some artists approach what are often ultimately quite banal ideas, to which I received the following response…)
In general, a well done, precise gesture is far more impressive than a grand and calculated production.
I wouldn’t say abstract is unlearning, it’s a paring down to precision and it’s actually pretty hard. In a lot of ways I’ve always been jealous of artists who follow a method, who can go into the studio and do the work, no matter what mood they’re in, even turn on the TV, and go through the motions. Getting it done, step by step. Filling it all in. In my experience I can go in there one day and something comes together; there’s always a bit of a fight but things just work, unexpectedly. Then I can spend the next 6 months trying to do it again, to get back what happened in those 2 hours and never get it. It doesn’t have the ease, it’s calculated, uninteresting and dead.
That’s material stuff. But when it comes to imagery I’ve always been more interested in what’s missing from the picture, what is implied, than putting something all out there. And I’ve taken that quite a bit further lately. With the figure that means no eyes. And that’s why I liked the animals; you didn’t have to see them as a particular kind of person; one that you could pin down as a type and likely not relate to.
And the political pics; I’m interested there for a bunch of reasons. Going through this Green-Card thing, deciding whether we want to join Team America, having a kid who is one of Them has made me think about Nationalism more and more. The politics here [in the USA] really are quite incredible. Since we’ve been here we’ve dealt with constant immigration stuff, not being able to work etc. I also grew up in a border town and my (half-American) mother believed everything American was Good and everything Canadian was less, weak, simple. Strangely I was named after Jackie-O and the Kennedys were a religion in our house. I wasn’t named Jacqueline because the French spelling seemed less than American. So I was Jackie until I moved out for college. The images I’m working from are all staged photo opps; they are very cold and tied up in a whole lot of ideology. What interests me is that I can transform them into something else. I can image they are genuine, warm moments between individuals that are from very different places. They can be motherly, paternal (for better or for worse and another aspect of American politics). I like that I’m both suspicious of the images but also kind of want to believe. Who doesn’t want to believe in Michelle! But at its most basic they are just figures resting on one another. Essentially that is the extent of the imagery that I’d like to be legible in the end.
Plus, the images are all fair use so that gives me freedom and ownership. When I was working from photographs of children I was essentially stealing people’s private family photos that were put online, putting them together in different ways and recontextualizing them. In a lot of ways this was really interesting but they are limitless. I realized that I started collecting images that were too good already. With the archive images, I’m starting with something that is generally not that interesting, visually they’re pretty banal. This means I have to work at it to find what I’m looking for, moments of tension, beauty etc.
Take a look at this Rodin! I found this today. What’s interesting here? Not the articulated features of the pretty girl. It’s the weird shape that becomes a veil, a mask, a blob, orb or a light that’s transforming her face, the lovely profile is slipping off the side of her face. Or is it the cast shadow that is illogically light instead of dark. And what might be a shawl is an impossibly heavy weight cementing her to the bottom of the page.
I think I see abstraction as metaphorical, which is probably the least sophisticated or scholarly position. I’m not interested in cold, ironic smartassmanship.
BE: Your apology for abstraction is quite convincing, and I admit it was rather foolish of me to take as my paradigm case some silly Frenchman who STILL thinks making a single red brushstroke on bare canvas to be the pinnacle of Western painting (“Een zis one moment, zer ees zee entire creatif act, n’est pas? Nussing more is necessaire!”). Abstraction, when taken as an abstraction FROM, as a pulling from the world that which is taken to be necessary or essential for some purpose, as still ultimately a rendering, and strikes me as quite a different matter than just experimenting with goo until it looks cool. Though I suppose even that can be kind of an interesting process —when does one stop?
I’m also really glad you brought up your situation as a Canadian in the US, as I was going to ask about that. I’m quite interested in the lens of center-periphery, with its flexible range of scope (America is center, Canada periphery; Toronto is Center, Newfoundland is periphery; New York is center, Kansas periphery; Chelsea is center, Bushwick periphery (or for many, the reverse)). I think the ways in which we deliberately cultivate and negotiate positions of center and periphery are fascinating. It also brought to mind a rather uncomfortable question which is possibly more appropriate for a century ago, but I’ll ask it anyway. I notice in your list of “important” or influential artists the majority are women. Is your gender important to you as a painter? If you think this is a stupid question, just say so and we can move on to other things.
JC: No that’s probably not a stupid question. It affects me quite a bit personally and so I don’t think it can be separated. In the same breath, how awful would it be to be called a “woman painter” or to be curated into a show of “women artists”? I try to make it a non-issue but of course it’s not.
BE: Hmm, yes, I think we are on the same page there. I do know that there are (still) many women who not only perceive a statistical imbalance in terms of gender representation in the elite art-world, but actually feel it and are affected by it. Also, I happen to know that your husband is a card-carrying member of a certain gender-exclusive art collective, whose gender-exclusivity is perhaps not entirely playful and tongue-in-cheek! So I thought it might be a bit of a topic for you.
You began a teaching career fairly recently. How has teaching affected your painting, your life?
JC: If I can’t be in my studio all the time, somebody else’s in the next best thing. I teach painting and drawing courses and so everything in the classroom is relevant to my own practice, even if very peripherally. This can be formal stuff like color and composition which we still haven’t totally figured out. And it involves questions of purpose, motivation and agency which are so unique to each individual and constantly changing.
BE: Do you think there is too much emphasis on academic training today? I’m thinking here not so much of the emphasis sometimes placed on name-brand educations, the way young artists can be scooped up for their moment in the sun and then forgotten about a year or two later. I’m thinking about the way a proper university context does a great deal to professionalize art, to turn practice into profession. Do you ever think about that, or worry about the fate of you students? Do you think art is or should be a profession?
JC: Students want to know what job they can get when they graduate from a painting program. Unfortunately the first task for most after graduating is repaying student loans. Which is fair enough; I know I wouldn’t have been able to afford the cost of an undergrad degree without financial aid with the current tuition rates. But I do think the focus on job readiness narrows the potential of some students. It causes them to be risk averse, strategic and to potentially compromise.
I don’t think this is specific to arts but traditionally art was an area that promoted alternative paths and approaches. I tell my students that if they are most interested in making a living, there are far easier ways to make money. Making art involves a lot of compromise for a person, it always has. If you’re passionate about it, if you know that it’s a way for you to function in the world however, you’ll do what you have to do. And no, it’s not easy or straightforward. I’ve relied so much on examples or mentors and I’ve been lucky to find a couple of incredibly strong, critical and encouraging voices that I ultimately rely on when it comes to questions of practicality and professionalism.
BE: I suppose a great deal hinges on one’s understanding of success. Of course there are many standards of success to choose from, which depend on your reasons for making stuff in the first place. It is a tricky business. So: Do you consider yourself successful? If not, what would it take to change your mind? Do you have a sense of your criteria for success? Do you think it is possible to be successful without becoming, in the words of David Hickey, nasty and stupid?
JC: I wouldn’t want to rely on the Art World to determine success. Not any of them. Or else I would have given up loooong ago! I think it’s important to be critical of the institutions you mention despite the fact that we’d all love to be invited in the club. In the end the rich and the powerful need the rest of us to maintain our clear-eyed and hungry subjacent glance. For me success has always been freedom and sustaining my self and my work. I realize that press, exhibitions and sales are a part of this.
But overall, success for me would be the freedom to set up my studio where I want, make what I want, when I want and have those critical eyes in, that I respect and trust, to keep me chasing after the next thing.
I like to eat and I have a kid so some amount of success would be required to maintain this beautiful life. The art world is always part of the studio world but one of the best things about the studio is that I run the place. I rely on these structures but they are things to navigate rather than blindly or diligently follow.
Since we’re citing celebrity art people saying stuff I was a bit caught up in the Tracey Emin statements this week and the responses that flooded the internet. Essentially around the belief that successful women artists can’t have kids (and the ageism that I believe is implied). This is mostly because it’s not the first time I’ve heard female artists say this. I’d like to say Emin’s statements are entirely false and yet she’s speaking from a personal experience which I don’t think is at all unique. I think some sacrifice is a part of making a life in art but there’s a difference between self-enforced rules and rules cast down from above.
I don’t want to be an art nun. Nuns never get to be popes.
To answer your question I feel like I’m successful in that I’m keeping going and I have food in the fridge but I also know that I’ll never be content. Success, on any level, sure is nice the moment when you can get it, but long-term, I don’t know how it all pans out.
BE: I’m of course interested in the what, sociopathology? I think that would be the right use of that word, the sociopatology of success, when success means celebrity. The biggest successes in so many of our cultural industries (Hollywood, music, etc.), who were presumably once not nasty and stupid, become hopeless fuck ups, strung out on drugs and craziness. The freedom success and celebrity give people just seems to make them insane! I wouldn’t wish that kind of success on my worst enemy!
You don’t need freedom or success to be insane.
And success and celebrity are very different things. I’m interested in the idea that “the desire for freedom generally demands the unfreedom of others”. Too much money and too much power can be a loss of freedom (so I’ve heard). And maybe here’s where the stupid and nasty come in. I’m for evening things out a bit.