Jenna Gribbon is a visual force in figurative painting, with female nudes skirting the margins of agency and consent. Her work posits an age-old question, new again for the Internet era: In a world of pussy galore, how do we consume what we’re seeing?
Taking subject matter where she finds it—family, lovers, and close friends—the 44-year old, Brooklyn-based artist unspools the mystery of painter and muse. It's never quite clear who’s looking at whom, which is exactly the point. Technically, Gribbon is a maestra. Her signature alla prima technique—layering wet-on-wet oil paint atop primed linen—“really allows the paint to slide around” as she describes it, creating a loose, fleshy spontaneity with pink fluorescent nipples, a signature gaze-shifting strategy that’s meant to evoke self-consciousness (ours).
“I never let us forget that the image is paint,” she explains. “It’s important in looking at anything to remember the way the image has been mediated, or [how] you receive it. I like to have this reminder that this isn’t necessarily reality. It’s a painting.”
But even measured against prior success, Gribbon's intoxicating "The Honeymoon Show!" on view at Lévy Gorvy Dayan (her first solo presentation there) kicks sapphic portraiture—a notable absence from both art history and the contemporary gallery world—up a bold notch. These recent paintings center on Gribbon’s wife of one year, Mackenzie Scott, a musician who performs under the name Torres and frequent muse of the artist's, on their lush Thailand honeymoon.
“She’s a great subject, because she’s a performer, so she really enjoys the performative aspects of being in my paintings,” says Gribbon on the crisp fall morning of her Upper East Side opening. “The idea is to bring everyone along on one of the most romantic, intimate experiences you can have: It’s the honeymoon. But then, it’s also about juxtaposing those hyper-romantic paintings with these clearly staged paintings of Mackenzie in front of curtains, with spotlights to highlight her as the performer in the painting.”
Gribbon keeps folders upon folders of photos, and probes our outsourcing of the past to photographic imagery—how increasingly, our memories themselves become crowded out by photography. “I find I actually get painting ideas more from film than other paintings,” she confesses. “I get material ideas from looking at the way a certain passage of paint can operate in a painting, but I think my mind conceives of painting in a cinematic way.”
As a conceptual device, "The Honeymoon Show!" includes mammoth and diminutive works, which she likens to different ways of absorbing culture. “I think a lot about your bodily viewing experience as you look at paintings,” Gribbon says. For larger scenes, “you sort of walk into them, and you feel it in your body,” she continues. “For smaller ones, the experience is a little more like reading, whereas a big painting is like being at a play or a concert.”
Hands are central to Gribbon's narrative, especially in this exhibit, where the artist immerses herself in her wife’s body: Scott points at a new freckle on her arm or pulls a nipple hair from her breast. “I like the idea of eroticized hands because when women have sex with each other, their hands are very important as an instrument,” she explains.
Indeed, if there’s one painting with an inescapable vortex into Jenna Gribbon’s world, it’s Huge gaze (homophone), 2023, the largest artwork she’s made to date, at 112 by 80 inches, depicting Scott—defiant and sensuous—her pointer finger on Gribbon's pubis. “It’s important to me to paint at this scale, because it’s something that a lot of people don’t know exists,” she says of lesbian partnership and pleasure. “Here it is in large form. What is she doing? Are they having sex? It's a very small gesture on this large scale.”