Q+Art: Painter Jenny Brillhart Shines a Light on the Messiness of Art Making
Jenny Brillhart is an artist’s artist. Her spare works reveal an intimate, behind-the-scenes look at the art-making process and the physical mark it leaves behind. In Housekeeping, the artist’s most recent body of work, Brillhart layers a year’s worth of pandemic anxieties over her domestic interiors with a studied affect that reinforces the quiet dread of quarantine.
Brillhart’s sense of order and restraint was shaped at a young age by a neighboring Shaker community. With its emphasis on form, function, and craftsmanship, Shaker design is minimalist, austere, and modestly beautiful, a no-frills lesson Brillhart takes to heart. The objects in her paintings are carefully arranged in such a way that the viewer considers, then reconsiders, their function. “By creating stilled moments through three-dimensional object placement, the commonly understood job of something may be altered,” Brillhart notes in her artist statement.
The objects Brillhart chooses for her paintings aren’t always recognizable, further obscuring their function. In their abstraction, her compositions beg to be studied, pored over, and understood. Artists will see familiar detritus—stretcher bars, tape and pencil marks from exhibition setups, a bit of insulation fluff or leftover drywall—but outsiders will have to look hard to find meaning. Brillhart bridges the gap by unveiling the artist at work in a democratic fashion. Her work seems to suggest that art making is an everyday, almost mundane activity, like cooking or cleaning. The transcendent moment may arrive later, as the artist and viewers admire the work; here, Brillhart rejects the artifice of that moment by calling us back down to earth (and the studio).
While her works are as unadorned as a 19th century Shaker armoire, there’s a certain absurdity to her fastidious arrangements. Discarded objects in somber colors dance around each other, moving with measured steps and painstaking precision, like a pair of Jane Austen characters. But Brillhart’s compulsion to control the narrative through rigid order only underscores the chaos humming below the surface of making and viewing. Art is always a messy business, and Brillhart’s work reveals the lengths we go to in order to unsee that mess.
In Today’s Q+Art Interview…
Jenny Brillhart discusses books about architecture, the freedom involved in process-based art, and the endless time-suck of the internet.
Which books, art-related or otherwise, belong on every artist’s shelf?
Jenny Brillhart: On my shelf I have lots of artist books—I see Wyeth, Alan Wexler, Morandi, Paul Rand, Agnes Martin, Rackstraw Downs, John Updike, books about the Shakers, books about architecture from my desk. I love The Poetics of Space, Poets on Painting and a recent purchase was Realist Magic, Objects, Ontology, Causality by Timothy Morton. I can’t say what should be on every artist’s shelf—there are a lot of books out there.
If you could have dinner with any artist, living or dead, who would it be?
JB: Charles Sheeler.
What are you trying to express with your art?
JB: Choices, stillness, air, and light.
Would you work for free in exchange for exposure?
JB: Exposure has many definitions. I try not to work for free. I try to work for me.
What person has most influenced your work?
JB: The Shakers, where I grew up, are a huge influence. My father’s respect for the mundane, and a painting teacher I had briefly at University of New Hampshire who taught me about choices, risks, and the joy and freedom of process.
What is your favorite guilty pleasure?
JB: The time-waste of the endless internet.
What do you consider your greatest artistic achievement?
JB: That I have consistent deadlines and sometimes sell something I made and love.
What is the best advice you’ve ever received?
JB: Work hard. Think. But don’t sweat it too much.
What is one thing you would like to change about the art world?
JB: How commodified and fashion-based it is.
Would you rather be a historically significant or commercially successful artist?
JB: I’d like to be both, but will settle for being able to do what I do at the modest scale I am at.
How has the coronavirus pandemic affected your practice?
JB: It was a productive year! A little lonely but I made a really good show for a Miami Gallery.
What are you working on that you’re excited about right now?
JB: Still life and small models over patterns are what I am building in the studio and using as a source for painting. This began at the end of producing work for my show in April at Emerson Dorsch. There seems to be a lot to do in this arena!
This interview has been edited for length and clarity. All photos published with permission of the artist.
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