Prospect Lefferts Gardens, Brooklyn, NY
Jane Zweibel incorporates her own face, figure, or form into just about every piece of work she creates. Her body of work is, in effect, an honest portrait of the artist, narrated visually over time. I had an opportunity to visit Jane in her studio in Brooklyn, just beyond Prospect Park, to learn more about her recent international success, and the history and motivation behind her work.
Where are you originally from?
I was born in Brooklyn, and grew up in Westchester, NY, out in the suburbs. I went away to college in Vermont, and moved around a lot and have done a lot of travelling since, but I’ve always come back to New York.
Have you always been creative?
Yes- it’s something that began as a child. By the time I was in high school, and was applying for colleges, I didn’t even consider anything but the fact that I wanted to do art. It was very much a part of my identity from early on.
It wasn’t like I was thinking that it was going to be my profession, that comes sort of later. There just wasn’t anything else to consider, art was my passion, and it was all I wanted to do.
I went to Bennington College in Vermont, they have a small, strong art department. A year after I graduated, I got my MFA at Columbia, and in between the two I worked in a studio on 14th Street for $14 a week, which was awesome. It was very communal, but who cares, it was cheap. I got to see what it was like to be working as an artist, out in the world in a studio, and not in school. That really solidified things for me, and graduate school was great. So, I got a studio after I finished graduate school and that was it.
Was there a definitive moment in there where you decided you were going to be a professional artist?
I think one thing just led to another. I knew I wanted to make art, and by the time I was in college and out of college I just knew that this was all I wanted to do. As for making a living doing it, it was kind of another kind of thing. I didn’t know how well I’d be able to sell my work, and there’s the whole issue of finding galleries. In the beginning it’s just a whole new thing, and it can take years for that to happen anyways. So I had a number of day jobs that were art related to help me support myself- I always sold work intermittently, but not enough to live on. I guess it was the year before my MFA that I was working on 14th street that I knew, I wanted to be a professional artist and didn’t want to do anything else.
Has painting always been your medium?
Yes. And drawing, I drew a lot before I ever painted. The sculptural pieces are a lot more recent. I had always worked on traditional stretched canvases, but I taught kids for a long time and was doing a project where the students were making stuffed animal hybrids, and so I did a stencil along with them and brought it back to my studio. I had this sort of epiphany, and I thought “well what if I don’t do an animal necessarily, but I make a stuffed shape and then make a painting on it,” and I came to call them stuffed paintings. The idea being that they weren’t like painted sculptures to me, but they were more like three dimensional paintings. I work in series, but on these I went from one idea to another, so I didn’t think of them as a very cohesive series. Then I went on to do this project here (pictured above), which is called “The Prayer Project”, and that was much more of a cohesive and more ambitious (larger) project. They’ve travelled around the world so they’re a little bit bent and dented because I’ve had to stuff and unstuff them.
How does the process to create a stuffed painting differ from a stretched canvas?
In the beginning I was thinking of figures, sort of half animal half human figure, and then I would make collages, make a stencil in the shape, place it over the collage and find the right composition, then I would make that shape on the canvas and work off of the collage as a starting point. Then as I went along, the outside shapes became more particular- in the latter series they are all in a gesture of prayer. I did a whole series of mermaids that I call “The Midlife Mermaids” and I don’t have any of them here, they’re all in Europe still.
So it sounds like your work is getting some international attention?
The mermaids are currently in Europe, and I also had a show in New Zealand, and this summer in the Philippines. So I travel with the art in the suitcase, I have to unstuff the paintings and just flatten them out, and get new cotton wherever I end up and restuff them. It’s quite a system- they’re velcro in the back...my husband came up with that. I’ve had two shows at a gallery in Luxembourg, which is now temporarily closed due to the economy- but they may reopen in another city. I love to travel, so it’s a great thing. I’ve had great luck through the internet connecting with galleries and having others find my work.
Where do you draw your inspiration from?
I do a lot of my work as self portraits. Self portraits for me are very important. They are not always recognizable as self portraits because I tend to distort things somewhat, but almost everything has a self portrait in it. I’ve always been a figurative artist. I love a lot of abstract painters, but it’s never something that I’ve been interested in doing. I think the figure is a very dynamic way of telling a story, and I love narrative. Figuration is definitely something that has always worked for me. The self portrait enhances my connection to the work, but it also is about painting a woman who could be any woman. It is particular and personal, but also universal. I need to do something that is very personal first, if I don’t start in that place then I don’t feel connected. It’s not about vanity, it’s about how I can most directly express who I am and how I’m feeling, and then I can build on it.
You had mentioned that you liked to work with a narrative, and then fragment it to allow the viewer to arrive at the conclusion on their own. Can you talk about what a particular narrative might look like?
Sure. I’ve done a whole series I call the pantyhose paintings. I started using pantyhose as an object that I could use with my body to work along themes of body image, distortion, the distortion of the self, and how one appears on the outside. All of these themes also represented the struggles people have on the inside.
I did a whole series of these self portraits with pantyhose, and I was really excited by them. I was able to really play around with myself, the figure, and the pantyhose. My husband did a photo shoot of me, actually, I took pantyhose and I just kind of went to town with them- I got caught in them and twisted, all kinds of things. They became the narratives in themselves, a lot of them are done in interiors and every object present has a particular meaning. Nothing is random. They’re very revealing and very out there, but a lot of people have really connected with them. They were included in a show that was reviewed by Art in America
I did a whole other series of them more recently, to see what would happen with 10 years of space in between the work- it was really great. In one particular piece, “Trinity”, the pantyhose to me become sort of like a straight-jacket, it was about grief, and loss. It was kind of an emotional outpouring, trying to break through that emotion.
It seems like gender identity is something that is pretty central to your work?
Identity is a really big thing in any self portraits, and the figure, the changes to the female body, my work is very honest, so it is also very revealing. The way the body and the psyche of women changes, how they work from my perspective is something that I put into my work. It creates something that I think a lot of women connect with, and also something that men can relate to as well- I don’t paint male bodies so much, but my work has been very popular with male collectors, so they obviously see something in it.
Are there any artists in particular that have inspired your work?
Oh definitely- one that people always bring up is Frida Kahlo, the Mexican self portrait artist. The fact that she did self portraits, along with the narrative in all of the other meaningful elements in her paintings have been a powerful influence. I love artists like Max Beckmann, all of his figures and the things that are going on in his paintings are packed will all kinds of imagery and narrative in them. Francis Bacon, and his strange distorted figural work I’ve always found very powerful. Of course, the Italian renaissance painters have always been a huge inspiration as well. My husband and I were in Italy for seven weeks and we went on a Caravaggio hunt- it was great, he’s an incredible painter.
Do you have a next project that you’re working on or moving towards?
Yes- I want to do more of the pantyhose paintings, because I was very excited by the last few. I started working with a lot of patterns and skewed perspectives the last time around, and I just want to continue exploring that, but on stretched canvases as opposed to the stuffed canvasses. I also want to do a series of stuffed paintings that are different kinds of flowers, but painted on the different floral forms would be different life events, both from personal and contemporary events. For example, the one that I’m working on now has a lot to do with my career as an Art Therapist at a hospital at NYU. I work with people in wheelchairs all the time, so that imagery came into my work. There was also some imagery from the weird earthquake we had last summer, as well as Hurricane Irene when we had to evacuate the entire hospital. The flower is a three dimensional form, but on the individual parts and pedals I’ve incorporated a lot of contrasting images that have more to do with turmoil and conflict.