Heading to the mirror with Jenny D

Post by Brent Burket, artblog New York correspondent

Sometimes, obsession can be a good thing. Since she was a teenager Jenny Dubnau has been obsessed with drawing and painting head portraits of herself and of those around her. But let’s not get out the DSM-IV too quickly. One person’s obsession can be another’s practice and method.


When I visited Dubnau’s studio in the Greenpoint section of Brooklyn the other month I saw what a lifetime of practice can lead to: Theoretically solid and emotionally penetrating work, executed with astonishing technique. The artist holds photo shoots with her subjects, and then paints her canvases from those photos. Although she does have an alarming knack for capturing the essence of her specific subjects, the work exhibits a longer reach than that. Her paintings sometimes feel like landscapes, but instead of disappearing to a horizon line, they tend to double back and become reflective experience for the viewer.

There’s a slight kinship with Gerhard Richter in her work. While Richter’s work so often confronts the failure of painting in general, Dubnau’s paintings take on the more specific challenge of portraiture. It’s not difficult to find a couple hundred contemporary artists who are having this dialogue with art history, but most of them achieve their goals by an exaggeration of form, by blowing things out. Dubnau follows the open secret that we’re all weird and vulnerable enough already. She just has to record it. Where others might explode, Dubnau digs in.


Out of the photo sessions she always seems to choose the image that catches her subjects in that moment between posing and presence, a door cracked open. What she sees in that sliver of vulnerability is what we get on the canvas. This is a beautiful thing, but that’s not to say that the results are always pretty. Her most striking paintings are sometimes the most raw. Dubnau is not afraid of what she sees in our faces or, for that matter, her own. In the space of a portrait she has the ability to reveal the hungry gravity that pulls us apart.


To achieve this in a recent series of self-portraits Dubnau has utilized slapstick and stage makeup. Her choice to cover up has led to some of her most revealing work to date. Here, the grease paint’s primal roots are showing. Entering the land of make-believe, whether it be vaudeville or straight theatre, has always been a way of working out deeper truths about ourselves. Dubnau tweaks the lie by setting snares
that send the viewer down some unexpected rabbit holes.


In “Self-portrait as Liar” (left) the artist has donned a long prosthetic nose. It’s obvious that the appendage has been crudely applied. There is no illusion about the illusion within a painting that is, of course, it’s own form of illusion. The artist’s glance to the side says, “I’m lying. It’s obvious that I’m lying. But I wonder if you can see that I’m lying.” It’s almost insanely hopeful, that childlike glance. It’s also something that we’ve all done, making it both disturbing and touching. I dare you to look at this painting for more than 15 seconds without running to your therapist.


Another painting, “Self-portrait with Tinsel Wig”, (right) is no less powerful. Behind a veil of shiny and raggedy tinsel is Dubnau looking pulled-back and dug in, her shoulders tight. She’s all dolled up with nowhere to hide. I don’t know about you, but I’ve never felt like that. OK, maybe a little bit. OK, maybe sometimes constantly. Did you catch my sideways glance on that one? Just because it’s someone else’s face doesn’t mean that it’s not a mirror.

These are only two examples of where these paintings can go, but it’s just the beginning. Jenny Dubnau’s paintings are always as much a window into their subjects’ lives as they are our own. With this new series of self-portraits she hasn’t even bothered with the latch. She’s just hurling rocks through the glass and right into our living rooms. Forget comfort. Forget history. Look into the unflinching eye of this painter and hold on. She’s taking you down.

If you’re interested in the reflecting pool that is Jenny Dubnau’s work, I have good news for you. A couple weeks after my studio visit,PPOW in Chelsea announced a show of her new work opening November 17. I think you all know where I’m going to be.

–Writer Brent Burket lives in Brooklyn where he produces the blog Heart as Arena and the Creative Council blog for the public art group Creative Time.


I woke up this morning and realized that I had neglected to mention how Dubnau’s paintings carry a certain sense of humor with them. It’s something that one can find throughout her body of work. In the case of “Liar”, it’s the blatant obvious-ness of it all that yields a chuckle in all the wrong places. In a diptych called Paintbath, Dubnau has had a bucket of paint poured over her. Here the chuckle is immediate in the first piece, and followed up in the second with an “Oh, my God. I’m an adult and I have a bucket of paint all over me. Now what?” Now what, indeed. With these works you never know, and I like it that way. –Brent