Essay on Jeff Work
AN AMERICAN IN BERLIN: THE 21’ST CENTURY
A year ago Suzy Hokanson unrolled her brother paintings that she had brought back from Germany. Along with the large oil paintings, there were photographs and cinema screen shots from which he worked and graphite and watercolor studies that documented his work process. I was stunned by the richness and depth of the paintings and by works that documented his visual thought process.
This exhibit involves you in Jeff Work’s working process. You become emotionally immersed in the painting’s narrative experience through different visual strategies of painting, photography, TV and cinema. Whether the subject matter is generated from family photos or from contemporary media, his process transforms them into powerful emotional experiences that command your involvement.
Much of contemporary art is “cool” with post-modern irony or conceptual puns. Jeff took an alternative approach. He embeds the intensity of everyday, human experience into a narrative of color and paint. His process digests 19th and 20th-century modern painting strategies. He resists the reduction of painting to a quick quote or facile imitation of style. For example, Jeff’s handling of paint in Drive’s balloons or in the central still life of the Gala Night is reminiscent of Manet’s love of paint as a rich substance of color and value. However, these tributes to Manet are firmly integrated into Jeff’s paintings’ greater visual and emotional statement.
Often in Jeff’s work the camera’s viewpoint and eye level sets up the figures to their spatial context. Drive divides each panel into the standard rule of thirds. The rule of thirds stabilizes the composition and anchors the figures in the shot’s frame. The characters’ sense of place and their spatial context is established in your mind’s eye. Due to these compositional devices used in media, you readily accept each shot of the figure and its context as realistic and true to life.
But simultaneously Jeff destroys any consistent rendering of traditional perspective. Instead, he uses visual strategies peculiar to the history of modern painting and color. The materiality of color builds spatial tensions and counter tensions which further draws you into the painting’s drama. In Shame, a hot orange line demarcates the man’s shoulder as it pushes against the intense blues of the background lines. As you look at his watercolor studies and portrait drawings, you can participate with Jeff as he plays with color to push and pull the figure in space.
Each painting is a dense dialogue between the visual language of painting and the visual languages of contemporary media. The dialogue between them establishes Jeff as a 21st-century painter who was adept at using the full range of modern and contemporary strategies to draw you into his paintings’ narratives.
However, his work is not dependent on academic art talk. Instead, he pulls you into a primal emotional experience that is not dependent on conscious intellectual thought. But as you spend time with his paintings, their rich understanding of our collective culture, both historical and media driven, continues to involve you in that dynamic experience that is unique to the visual arts, a painting. Both the mind and the emotions are challenged and engaged.
Anne Bessac, Curator