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 www.jessicavanbrakle.com.