Painter Jenny Morgan talks about the process behind her nude self-portraits
I met Jenny Morgan within twelve hours of stepping onto the filthy and gorgeous streets of Manhattan for the first time in 2007. I was assisting Sarah Cass on a photo shoot of one of Jenny's portrait subjects, and I have been following her work religiously since that moment.
"Merging The Phantom," Jenny Morgan
This Friday, June 1, the painter returns to her second home, Plus Gallery in Denver, for her latest exhibition, Kith And Kin.
Originally from Salt Lake City, Morgan found her way to Denver for undergraduate studies at Rocky Mountain College of Art and Design. While there, she became Plus Gallery owner Ivar Zeile's first assistant, a relationship that blossomed into a professional one as Morgan's career unfolded. Receiving her masters in fine art from the School of Visual Arts in New York in 2008, Morgan has worked out of NYC ever since, with international exhibitions of her work and portrait commissions from the likes of the New York Times and New York magazine.
In advance of her latest show for Plus, Morgan discussed her painting process, the challenges of commissioned work and honest detachment from portrait subjects -- even when that subject is her own naked body.
Westword:When did you start painting?
Jenny Morgan:I started painting as a teenager, in a serious way. I learned oils when I was fifteen. I started figure painting then as well.
Was there a particular artist or work of art that struck you in a way that contributed to what you do today?
Not as an adolescent; I think everyone starts figure drawing and painting as sort of the beginning block. I went into college as an illustration major -- because of my skill set, my advisors said I would be good in that genre. So I took the advice of the adults around me. But once I actually got into the work that was involved with being an illustrator -- working with other people's ideas and dealing with the commercial aspect -- I realized early on that I wasn't that into it. I wanted to be in my studio making my own work.
That's when I became more influenced by painters like Jenny Saville. She was the big female painter that really shifted me into knowing that I could make this figurative work and have it be impactful -- outside of this commercial work -- and make a living.
I'm glad I took those courses, though; I learned basic drawing skills, and, from that school [Rocky Mountain College of Art and Design], I got my technical training. I'm glad I did that before moving into the more conceptual thought arena.
How did you come to painting nudes, specifically?
I've always wanted to work with the figure; I've tried doing it clothed, but I found I have no interest in clothing. Once you start setting scenery and taking these photographs yourself, every single aspect of the painting becomes important. I had no desire to paint those things. The skin tells more of a story to me than the actual clothing; it became about getting down to the basic part of these people. Getting down to the raw aspect of it and painting skin is really exciting.
Do you know the people that you paint, personally? How do you get them to pose for you?
They are always people I know -- in grad school, I experimented with hiring models. I wanted to work with actual prostitutes and paint these women in the traditional way that men would paint women for hire. One of my friends had just shot a porn in his living room, and he connected me with these girls. I paid to photograph them, and started painting these huge paintings of them.
Halfway through, I realized I just didn't care; I didn't know anything about them. It became really apparent at that time that I have to have a personal and emotional and intellectual interest in the people. When I'm staring and looking at a photograph for hours, it is more of a relationship with them then anything else. It's always people close to me, and I'm always amazed that 99 percent of the people I ask willingly pose nude for me. (Laughs.) It hasn't been an issue for me.
I feel like because they trust me -- even if they don't end up necessarily liking the painting -- they trust the process. It's always hard for people to see their own image; so I never expect people to be like, "Oh, my god, I love it! It's the best thing ever!" (Laughs) You know, when the painting is sanded down and they've got weird colors showing, they're not always flattering. So I never expect anyone to really appreciate how they visually look, but I think they trust me enough to allow me to do that. I'm always thankful for that.