Womanness, Chicago Imagists and Emily Dickinson: A Discussion with Venezuelan Artist Jeffly Gabriela Molina by Nicole S. Lane

"In A Place Between Reverie and Irreverence," 2015.  Oil and Pencil on Linen, 58" x 58"

Kruger Gallery Chicago in Lakeview will be presenting the works of Venezuelan artist, Jeffly Gabriela Molina, through June 27 in the solo exhibition, [My Business Is Circumference]. Molina's intimate paintings use domestic spaces to convey a conversation between the familiar and the surreal. Like Eva Hesse, who created grid-based abstractions on paper--a reaction to the male-dominated structures in minimalism in the 1960s--Molina's pieces convey a conversation of seriality and the woman's narrative. 

Influenced by English female writers--specifically Emily Dickinson's letters to T.W. Higginson--Molina utilizes trompe-l'oeil to visually liken her paintings to literary works, such as stories, poems, essays and letters.

I sat down with the artist in Lakeview and discussed her upcoming exhibition. What follows is an abridged version of our interview.

Could we begin by discussing your background--specifically, your creative history and how you began making art and painting?

It was very natural. I was drawn to colors and drawings. It wasn't something that I would just do once in a while. I remained persistent. I am very multi-faceted. I wanted to sing--very badly--I wanted to act, I wanted to do all of these series of things. My parents said, "Okay, you want to act, maybe we will put you in a theater school" and then that didn't work. And then, "Okay, you like music? Try learning how to play guitar" and then I would just move on. The thing that remained consistent was my proclivity to the arts. I remember for my 8th birthday, I asked for an easel--that's how much I liked it. That's how I began painting. 

I don't have family members that are artists but I do have an older cousin who is married to an artist from Holland. They have this beautiful home in the mountains in Venezuela. I come from the Andes and they have this entire mountain for themselves. He has a studio and when you walk through the mountains you run into his sculptures. It's a really beautiful place. So I would go there once in a while, not very often, but I would daydream about myself becoming this artist. I was very little, maybe 8, 9, 10 years old. His work is figurative so that was the first thing that I was drawn to. I began drawing the streets of my town, so it was either architecture or figures. I think I have now moved on.

[Both laugh] But you can definitely see the influence. 

I went to various schools, quite often. The last year, I was like, "Yeah, this is what I want to do. I want to be an artist." There was no art school in my town. It was already a bleak idea to become an artist in my country. I applied to some schools and applied for the architecture programs and I did get in but then I just came here and convinced my aunt to let me stay with her in Miami. Eventually I was able to apply for the New World School of the Arts and I received my BFA. 

Moving to Chicago is quite a difference from Miami. 

I always knew that I wasn't going to remain in Miami. When I moved from Venezuela to Miami, I wanted a change. I wanted to learn how to speak English very well and I wanted to be a part of another culture. In Miami, you can't really find that. In the restaurant business, which is where I was helping my aunt, my peers were either Cuban or Argentinian. One was louder than the other and we were all dramatic of course. [Both laugh] So, I loved it and it was an important experience because we were all people who had left their countries so we understood all of the same pressures and all of the challenges. We were all around the same age. However, I knew that it wasn't the surrounding that I needed to develop professionally. The conceptual part of my work might have found some seeds in the restaurant business and surrounded by so many different women. I had to wake up early and I had to pick up the fish. Sometimes I would be painting and I would get a call that "someone-someone couldn't come" and "someone-someone has a fight with their boyfriend and can't stop crying," so I would have to go in. 

I met this wonderful family that came into the restaurant. This family, this couple, who are very important collectors and also a very prominent family in Chicago, have a villa in Miami. Their home is not that far from the restaurant, it's a few blocks away, and every time they would come in they would sit in front of this painting that they liked. My work was hung on the walls and they would ask people who the artist was. Some people didn't know that I was the artist--new waiters--but most of them knew. I had even told some people to not tell anyone that I was the artist. After a month, they went directly to my aunt and asked her how to contact me. My aunt called me really mad and said if I wanted to stop selling fish then I needed to come there and introduce myself to these people. I was there in five minutes because my home was behind

the restaurant of course. I introduced myself and I had met them before and they were like, "You are the artist?!" and I said, "Yes." My English back then wasn't as good and I didn't know how to sell my work. They actually purchased the first painting I ever sold. 

They continued to collect more of my works and we would tea together and we became closer friends. They said, "You should apply to the School of the Art Institute of Chicago". I wasn't sure but they told me to apply and said,"we will help you," but I didn't know exactly what that meant. They took me to the interview, picked me up at the airport--I mean amazing, fairytale style--and I got into the school. They decided to pay for my schooling and some other expenses in Chicago. So, you ask me how did I like this transition? I loved it. I lived in the West Loop for a little bit. They wanted me to live in a safe place and even picked the place where I was going to live. It was the first time that I could focus entirely on my career. I still had a part-time job in school but even that for me was so random. From a very early age I have always been a worker that studies, never a student that works. For the first time, I was a full-time artist. Then I decided to jump right into the masters program. I was admitted and here I am. I just culminated the first year of my masters. 

Congratulations. Do you think you'll decide to stay in Chicago after the grad program? 

It's my kind of town. I love the architecture. If you see my work from a very early age, it's a very solid city. Miami is too spread out, where Chicago is a big city, with a small town feel. I discovered that I like seasons. I like how my life changes four times a year. There is always something to look forward to. If you're sad, Chicago will give you a sunny day, where you can't deny yourself a smile. But I'm very young. I come from a background of moving around too often and I attended nine different schools. If I had to make a decision right now, I would like to have a home in Chicago, I would like to spend some time in Europe and be very international. I consider myself a very international person and I hope my life is that way. Hopefully this city will be one of my homes. I like it a lot. 

That's nice to hear.

It has a lot of potential, especially with what is happening now with the arts. I think it's in a rebirth. I feel like the Imagists from the 1960s are happening again with a young crowd of artists who are refusing to leave the city. Some of them are my peers and I admire them strongly. I feel like I am in an environment that is challenging me to be a better artist. I think that the school is amazing. There has been a tendency for students to leave, either to Los Angeles or New York, then there are a few that are deciding to stay because they see that New York is too fast. In Los Angeles--the drought--now, nobody wants to move there. Chicago is...

...a perfect medium. 

Yeah! Yeah, so I think that something special is happening in the city. Right now. In these years. I think it's something that is going to make Chicago a very important art scene in the country and in the world. 

I definitely agree. Moving on to your exhibition, I see that you have an Emily Dickinson letter to Higginson on the wall. Can you talk about that a little bit more? I've read a lot of the correspondence back and forth but I would like to hear what you think about it.

Why I did that letter? Well, the emergence of the idea--the plurality of a woman's identity--happened before the letter. The letter gave me an entrance into the images. Last year I began reading different women's poetry and poetry from men too. There is a poem by Pablo Neruda called "We Are Many," which is all of these different versions of himself. It was really beautiful and so I began thinking about the plurality of an individual. By focusing a little bit more on the woman, it is something that I am passionate about. The feminine, the woman; it is who I am. It became a little bit more complicated as I decided to immerse myself into women's literature. I began reading works from as early as the 17th century. I began reading Margaret Cavendishwho wrote about science, philosophy, and was one of the earliest philosophers, whose work is now problematic. It is amazing that she is one of the earliest women who published with her own name. Women were not encouraged, but ridiculed, for writing and having intellectual endeavors. After that, other women like Mary Wollstonecraft, and other feminists became my focus. I began thinking that this plurality of identities might be more pertinent to women because we women have had to deal with different sides of society. We have had to deal with this domestic side and then we have had to rebel against it. We have this masculinity that has

always been suppressed. We are not encouraged to explore this, although it has changed a little bit recently. 

These pluralities of women manifest itself in different ways. I am interested in these different ways. Sometimes we are vulnerable, sometimes we are strong, sometimes romantic, and other times independent--all of these may be the same person. It's just a set of circumstances that come from the outside that make us modify our personalities. I began investigating that a little bit further through literature and also just being aware of myself. I became curious. I began developing works that may enact different sides of a woman's personality. The titles of my work are always very important. My rooster piece shows something that is "both"--it's a symbol of pride, courage and masculinity--but also, in my country, it's a domestic animal. Those two things come together to create a symbol of plurality of an animal. 

What inspired me about the feminists were the fact that they were these rebels, but many of them got married and had children, and were a part of the society that they critiqued so harshly. They were able to be in it and also alienate themselves. How do we do that? Maybe you have to be many different people in one. You have to also face the consequences. Many of these women were called lunatics, eccentrics, hysterical, "suffered from the spleen," had to be rescued, etc. Many of them were treated by the same psychologist. Not to be repetitive, but this is where my idea of plurality became stronger and more specific. 

You explained that so beautifully. Can you talk about the title of your exhibition and why you chose that specific line from the Emily Dickinson letter? 

Oh, yes, Emily Dickinson! That letter is so special to me because I opened this book and saw that letter for the first time. The man that she is sending these letters to is an important editor, an important writer himself, so I imagined this man is curious to know who this young woman with a brilliant mind is. How does she look? When she responds, she says, "Could you believe me without? I had no portrait, now, but am small, like the wren; and my hair is bold, like the chestnut bur; and my eyes, like the sherry in the glass, that the guest leaves." Not only does she look like me, [both laugh], but the way she describes herself is so poetic. She's writing with images and I'm trying to make the words. By painting with words, I mean that I am referencing specific things. That's why the titles of my works are so important. I am referencing poetry

through my work. I guess how she [Emily Dickinson] was able to use these symbols to describe herself is what allows me to create the work for my different selves. What does she mean by "circumference"? That is actually a very, "Dickensian" term. She means a lot of things. Artists also mean a lot of things with their work. As you are making the paintings, new things happen. 

Do you consider these paintings self-portraits? Are these parts of yourself?

It could be like that. Each piece has something of me in it. But then it also has something, of something else. In this body of work, more so than before, I am using images. I am allowing myself to reference the world around me in a more direct way. This [pointing to a piece behind her] image is of a photograph. I was looking for something called a "Gentlemen's Wallpaper" by Charles Gibson. He was a designer from the late 19th century, early 20th century. He came up with the Gibson Girl. Who is the Gibson girl or woman? She was the model of the modern woman in the early 20th century. She's a beautiful woman with her hair done a certain way and her body shape is a certain way. And there is a wallpaper of this woman. It's the same woman repeated a hundred times. I love working with patterns and wallpaper to I was googling this specific one and this image that I decided to paint came up. This image became very particular as I began to do more research about my own concept and notions of feminism. 

The photographer of this image, Paul Kooiker, has done a series of images that deal with women. Sometimes they don't have a sex. His works are amazing--beautiful. This one has a lack of sex. There were so many possibilities for me to work with so I decided to fragment the image. I was aiming for the multiplicity that I was initially looking for in the Gentlemen's Wallpaper. When looking at the image, you ask, "Is she giving birth? Why is she in that position? Is she receiving something or is she giving something?" I have more questions than answers indeed. There is more of a personal inquiry, than a personal narrative. 

You mentioned the wallpaper aesthetic in a lot of your work. I'm really drawn to this grid--or tiles--that are in some of your paintings.

That has definitely become stronger in this body of work. I never allowed myself to be very influenced by images as in this body of work. It might be Instagram's fault. The grid is the new trend! It's even printed on clothes. The grid, to me, is something that is extremely functional in the making of an image. You grid your canvas and it's easier to position what you are working with. This functionality of the grid felt very useful and instrumental to the image. The grid has made itself part of the anatomy of the work. It's a little bit of popular culture, popular imagery, that is influencing my work. Not necessarily conceptual. Some of my color palettes are very '50s and '60s. Some people think, "That's like Season Five of Mad Men!"[laughs]. That sounds appropriate. I do like the '60s palette.

You really enjoy sculpture as well and you studied it. How do you approach sculpture in comparison to painting? 

What happens with painting is that you make a decision every time you put your brush to the canvas. With sculpture you have more of a plan. You can't just go to the table saw and cut this there and this here. You have to be more precise. Often, if not always, the conceptual side of painting will develop with the piece itself. The "something-ness" of the painting developed within the painting itself. Whereas, the "something-ness" of the sculpture has to be thought out before. However, I like both paintings and sculpture to be interactive with the viewer. I like them to be experienced a certain way. The optical illusion pieces pull you. It's not just an object on the wall, it's an extension of the environment that it inhabits. That for me is important. 

The optical illusion pieces are somewhat new, correct? 

Yes. Optical illusions are wonderful. As an image maker, which is primarily what I am, I look for an image that will carry the concept in such a way that it will draw the viewer to stay with it a little longer. The viewer has to linger with the painting in order to discover something in it. That's what optical illusions do. They trick you. Why not, you know? Now the viewer has to figure out how it was made. While he is trying to figure that out, he discovers something else in the painting that you wanted him to discover, or not. 

Where do you see your work going in the future? Do you have any upcoming plans, exhibitions, goals? 

Yeah. Well, with my work, I will continue developing. One of the beautiful things with this show is that I have allowed myself to approach each work in a very individual way. Some of the pieces are quite different from the others. There is a core, like a persona, but then the rooster has nothing to do with the chickens, or the couple has nothing to do with the chair. Each piece taught me something and I hope to continue making work where I will learn a little something, even if it is something little. That is the most rewarding thing of my career: I am constantly learning. It doesn't become easier, it is constantly challenging. The sense of reward asserts itself.

I have one more year in school. I love school. I hope to keep devoting myself to learning more about theory. I hope to be able to articulate these things that I am learning in a more simpler way. I want to keep reading and keep nurturing myself. Literature, stories, poems, are so beautiful. Poetry is amazing. I have considered doing another master's in literature or visual critical studies but I am not sure if I am going to jump into that just yet. I'm going to keep loving Chicago, keep myself engaged, have more shows, and keep developing. 

~*~

Kruger Gallery Chicago, located at 3709 N. Southport Ave., will exhibit [My Business is Circumference] until June 27. The gallery is open Tuesday through Saturday; see website for hours or call 312-995-0776. Jeffly Gabriela Molina is currently an MFA student at SAIC where she is expected to graduate in 2016.

 

 

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