Surface details: In conversation with Jeanne Gaigher

The scenes that South African artist Jeanne Gaigher paints appear to move and shift before your eyes. Her fluid brushstrokes and autumnal, earthy colour palettes create mesmerising scenes where subject and background merge in and out of one another. Influenced by place, mood and narrative, Jeanne’s paintings are like scenes in a film with densely packed strata of information that unfold within each frame and across a body of work. The idea of layering is central in Jeanne’s work. Working intuitively, Jeanne builds up three-dimensional layers in her work by adding painted scrim fabric (which is a thin transparent gauze-like textile) over the painted canvas like a curtain. This has the effect of simultaneously obscuring and accentuating aspects of the image, creating a sense of depth, like looking through water, where the painted forms and figures on the different surfaces ripple against one another.

In the world of Jeanne’s paintings, conventional compositional hierarchies dissolve; figures and inanimate objects blur, and everything melts into the background texture. In her most recent solo exhibition Century’s View at SMITH Gallery in Cape Town (her third with the gallery) Jeanne experimented with painted sculptural forms. Within her artmaking framework, Jeanne conceived of these as three-dimensional paintings or layers that had separated from the works on canvas and seeped into the space of the gallery.

Jeanne’s work has been included in many group exhibitions and art fair presentations. She graduated from Stellenbosch University in 2013 and currently lives and works in Johannesburg. We chatted with Jeanne to find out more about the ideas she’s currently exploring in her work.

AMM: Hi Jeanne! You recently had your third solo exhibition, congratulations. What were some of the themes you were exploring in this body of work? Did this show signal anything new in your practice?

JG: Thank you! The show is made up of different elements that I find around me – patterns, landscape details, also fictional facts that were contained together inside the structure of a house. The important thing being the changing of the perception of objects and landscapes and how the information from ‘outside’ migrated or infected the interior space. I wanted the exhibition to feel like one mass of colour moving slowly and hypnotically from side to side. Something new that adds to this idea are the sculpture paintings. It contributed to the hallucinatory dream space as the sculptural pants and shoes expanded in size.

AMM: Your paintings are characterised by a wonderful fluidity. How do you respond to the idea of surface in your paintings?

JG: I link fluidity to the changeability or instability of a situation or object. I use the different textiles I work with; photography’s smooth surface, unprimed canvas’s rougher texture, dyed canvas and scrim’s transparency to investigate or spend time with a chosen subject. The process is more about focussing on the combination of the materials to figure out the state that the subject is in. The tension is as much in the content as in in the materials used.

Installation shot of ‘Century’s View’, Smith Studio Fine Art Gallery, Cape Town

Weather Changes I and II, 2018 Scrim, ink, acrylic on canvas 120 x 155 cm (installation view at Smith Studio Fine Art Gallery, Cape Town)

AMM: How did you first start using scrim in your art? What about this material interested you?

JG: I was looking for a material that could challenge the paintings on canvas. Scrim is a gauze-like cotton material that I use to layer over the paintings to distort parts of them or add images into the scenes. In my mind scrim is like a disintegrated version of canvas material, providing me with a transparent surface to create ghostly images with ink on top of or next to the acrylic works. This helps with creating a rhythm in the space.

AMM: What roles does colour play in your work?

JG: I think colour is the dictator of how anything is experienced. It completely changes the mood of the room. It’s a way for me to indicate a split in the frame, separating out two scenes or on the other hand it’s a language that can unite very separate subject matter that has nothing to do with each other. For example in an earlier show I was working around living in China and then living in Louisiana and making up a scenario where these two opposite poles blended together into a third translation. I also like thinking of my paintings as very slow comics, and colour helps to create high energy in the work although nothing is really happening in the scenes.

AMM: Your work is figurative even though at times it edges towards abstraction. What presence do the figures in your work signify and how does your style of representation relate to this?

JG: Figures or the attitude of the figures open up an emotional connection to an unreachable atmosphere in places I draw painting information from. They become the spokespersons, they give feedback, I think through them, I latch on a variety of moods or reactions to the figures that were collected from books or films or real life people I experience.

The figures are deeply imbedded into the scene, they aren’t completely just on the surface of the painting, instead they look like they are made from the textiles I use or they live inside of objects in a room or inside of a pattern. They end up being half inanimate object, half textile with a recognizable expression.

In my most recent show the viewer is watching someone else scratch at the surface of the rooms and objects – picking it apart, separating the colours and textures to see what it’s made of, working backwards, asking how it got here. I was thinking about something or someone looking and observing and translating on my behalf. I think there is knowledge transferred between me, Century and the chosen objects that, together, decide what the scenes will feel like. She acts as the host, interrupting the spaces and inviting the viewer to decipher what she/we see.

Table shedding heat, noise and smell, 2018 Scrim, acrylic, ink and thread on canvas, 120 x 155 cm

Fog, face, puddle, 2018 Scrim, ink, dye and thread 120 x 155 cm

AMM: The layers of scrim in your paintings act like curtains, playing with depth and perception. How does this relate to themes or concepts in your work?

JG: I think of the layering of textiles as a way to think about change in an image like the movement that happens in chronophotography. However, rather than movement taking place on a linear line from one side to the other, the motion occurs between the layers of pigment and scrim that pushes outwards from the frame. This way of thinking around the materials I use helps me formulate ideas around dialogue changes between people and the way we camouflage ourselves inside of our ecosystems.

AMM: What is your process or working?

JG: I will choose a setting to work with; it could be a restaurant, a view, scene from a film and from there intrude and expand on it with the textiles I work with and find imagery and take photos I associate with it. I usually work on all of the paintings in the studio at once to keep a coherency throughout the work. I also use existing paintings as blueprint for the next.

AMM: In previous interviews you’ve made reference to filmmaking techniques that you’re influenced by. How does this translate into your process or way of thinking about painting?

JG: Yes I think film is a very helpful way to see what an impactful scene as a whole is made of; costume, colour, lighting, setting, the way the actors are operating in it. I also think of paintings as sequences that lead up towards the unveiling of a situation or impression. A body of work is a combination of high and low impact, some are more quiet than others. The biggest traction to films though is the cinematography, the colouring of a scene that creates the moodiness.

AMM: Your work has a very evocative and poetic quality. How does narrative and memory function in your work?

JG: When the audience carry on with their lives I hope that the paintings will come back to them as an afterthought.

AMM: What are you reading, watching, listening to?

JG: Reading: Paul Auster’s 4 3 2 1; watching: Holy Motors by Leos Carax is one of my favourite films; listening: Akiko Yano.

AMM: What’s next for you?  

JG: Placing my focus on Johannesburg and the surrounding smaller towns.

Find out more about the artist: www.smithstudio.co.za

Interview by Layla Leiman for ArtMaze Magazine.

The important thing is to go away now , 2018 Scrim, canvas, ink, acrylic and thread, 122 x 122 cm