Jessica van Brakle

Arlington, VA | by July 24, 2011

As the tem­per­a­ture out­side topped 100 degrees, I stepped inside the cool, spare space of the Arling­ton Arts Cen­ter to visit the stu­dio of Jes­sica van Brakle.  Although I have known Jes­sica for sev­eral years (and worked with her on a group exhi­bi­tion) this was my first chance to visit her new stu­dio space.  The Cen­ter is housed in a ren­o­vated build­ing that started life as the Claren­don School in 1910.  Now fully mod­ern­ized, it con­tains expan­sive exhi­bi­tion space as well as 13 stu­dios for res­i­dent artists.  Stu­dio space is com­pet­i­tive; artists are juried in and given the oppor­tu­nity to exhibit in solo or duo shows dur­ing their res­i­dency.  Jes­sica received her invi­ta­tion this past February.

Her mod­ern, com­pact stu­dio on the building’s sec­ond floor main­tains some of the charm­ing fea­tures of the old school­house includ­ing huge win­dows over­look­ing busy Arling­ton Blvd on two walls.  A gal­ley kitch­enette — a nod to moder­nity — is tucked into one cor­ner.  The large wall oppo­site the win­dows is per­fectly sized for large scale pro­duc­tion, and on this wall she has mounted white trac­ing paper fac­ing a project she uses in her newest body of work (more on that below).  And then there are the cranes…..

Model cranes sit on the floor and win­dowsills.  Pho­tos of crawler cranes are piled in boxes on desks like a life­time of old post­cards saved from exotic trips.  Draw­ings of ham­mer­head cranes are taped up on the walls.  A quick inter­net search listed 23 dif­fer­ent types of con­struc­tion cranes used at build­ing sites, and I haz­ard to say that all are rep­re­sented in some fash­ion in Jessica’s stu­dio.  Fin­ished works on the wall all fea­ture whole cranes or the tow­ers and jibs of cranes as part of their motifs.  These mechan­i­cal ele­ments are inter­twined and con­trasted with botan­i­cal and/​or dec­o­ra­tive ele­ments to cre­ate the entire composition.

This seemed like an apt place to begin our inter­view, so I asked her why cranes are such an inte­gral part of her work.  Her answer evoked whiffs of nos­tal­gia and the notion that metal has inher­ent beauty.  The nos­tal­gia comes from mem­o­ries of her grand­fa­ther, the owner of a con­struc­tion com­pany.  She told me about hear­ing sto­ries from her father who spent sum­mers greas­ing the mov­ing parts of these metal beasts, and I got the sense that cranes are almost a metaphor for her fam­ily tree.  She also spoke about how dri­ving by the National’s Sta­dium dur­ing con­struc­tion allowed her to view a mul­ti­tude of cranes from a vari­ety of inter­sect­ing angles.  She came to see the “lat­tice work [of the crane’s con­struc­tion] as beau­ti­ful” and was intrigued by how the shapes of lat­tice work could also be seen as del­i­cate and fragile.

While cranes and their asso­ci­ated mechan­i­cal forms rep­re­sent a uni­fy­ing force in her work, the viewer must give equal weight to the botan­i­cal and decorative/​craft ele­ments that inter­act with the rigid steel.  These ele­ments, includ­ing plant mate­r­ial, fab­ric shapes and bejew­eled forms, set up a series of con­trasts intended to explore polar oppo­sites.  Under­stood in this con­text, one imme­di­ately sees the inter­play between mas­cu­line (machin­ery) and fem­i­nine (craft) or between Nature (botan­i­cals) and man­made forms.  There is an under­tone of play­ful­ness run­ning through the works, and while she makes seri­ous art, when she describes her visual ele­ments as, “Martha Stew­art mag­a­zine meets Home Depot” I can’t help but chuckle.  Inter­est­ingly, the use of color becomes just another con­trast­ing ele­ment, and the shapes and hues of the color blocks are cho­sen to heighten the feel­ing of dec­o­ra­tion in the piece.

Jes­sica doesn’t con­sider her­self a “typ­i­cal painter” and eschews the look of large brush strokes.  While color blocks are applied with a roller, all other ele­ments on the can­vas are applied free­hand using a squeeze tube with a metal nib.  An up-​​close exam­i­na­tion of the can­vas reveals an intri­cate pat­tern of lines and dots, almost show­cas­ing the hand of a drafts­man rather than a painter.  Indeed, it’s a very mechan­i­cal, time-​​consuming way to work.  In fact her newest body of work show­cases this deft hand­i­work and fea­tures no color blocks at all.

Her recent pieces, unveiled this sum­mer at D.C.’s Hamil­ton­ian Gallery where she’s cur­rently a res­i­dent fel­low, marks a cre­ative evo­lu­tion in her work.  I saw the show just before our stu­dio visit and was anx­ious to ask about this new take on tra­di­tional land­scapes and her appar­ent divorce from color.  Inspired by a visit to an exhi­bi­tion of Ger­man mas­ter draw­ings at the National Gallery of Art in 2010, Jes­sica has cre­ated pris­tine, vir­ginal land­scapes (up to eight feet wide) and inserted jar­ring reminders of man­made ele­ments in the form of cranes.  These new pieces, cre­ated with graphite and minis­cule dabs of black paint, feel simul­ta­ne­ously dig­i­tally ren­dered and vaguely unfin­ished.  Both these obser­va­tions are intended:  what we see is van Brakle’s ref­er­enc­ing of mod­ern tech­nol­ogy within the con­text the often unfin­ished, “skele­tal” qual­ity of these old Ger­man mas­ter­pieces. The skele­tal nature of the entire com­po­si­tion is a clear ref­er­ence to the skele­tal nature of the cranes them­selves.  The lack of color is also very inten­tional; when I posed the ques­tion, she answered, “why [would] I use color when all the infor­ma­tion is there in black and white.”

Inter­est­ingly, she noted that these new works have been inter­preted by some as tak­ing sides in mod­ern eco­log­i­cal debates, though is not her intent.  These are not spe­cific locales.  In actu­al­ity, she uses a photo pro­jec­tor to dis­play a reverse, mir­rored image on her stu­dio wall, enabling her to cre­ate a Rorschach-​​esque amal­ga­ma­tion of a tra­di­tional land­scape.  Going for­ward, her fore­see­able fea­ture will con­tinue to use the model of the land­scape as a method for explor­ing the bal­anced ten­sion between oppos­ing forces.   For more images of her work, please visit her web­site at

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  • Jeff Printz says:

    Great arti­cle Eric!

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