• Jude Stewart

Seeing the Invisible: A Q&A About Creativity With Painter Jinn Bronwen Lee

I like getting inside other creative people’s heads, particularly if their disciplines aren’t identical to my own. Consider this Print Q&A with fiction writer Alice Mattison or this interview with painter David Schutter, one of several “Process” Q&As I’ve written for The Believer. It’s gratifying to learn how and why other creatives make works, solve problems, and know when they’re done. So much creativity lies adjacent to making the work: preparing mentally; fixing a work when it goes sideways; realizing what the work is really about. Confronting your own blindness, in short. To continue this exploration, I’ve spoken to painter Jinn Bronwen Lee.

Painter Jinn Bronwen Lee thinks about various kinds of blindness all the time. Groping in the dark, or struggling to see amid dazzling glare. Delayed realizations. Clarity, obfuscation and illusion. Her paintings refer to the body in their scale – sized to the width of a person’s shoulders or a hanging mirror – but they don’t include human figures. Instead the works operate like windows into a penumbral scene where objects seem to slumber under dropcloths and play tricks on the eye. She seems less interested in the objects hidden in her scenes than in the charged, ambiguous atmosphere generated between them. Her works convey both darkness and droll humor at once.

Drawings made after Carl Theodor Dreyer’s 1932 film Vampyr. By Jinn Bronwen Lee

A graduate of both the School of the Art Institute of Chicago (SAIC) and the University of Chicago, Jinn has exhibited in Rome, Los Angeles, New York and Berlin. In 2015-16, she was a visiting artist at the American Academy in Rome. Currently she teaches painting at the University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC) and is a resident at Theaster Gates’ Rebuild Foundation, Chicago.

We talked about her creative process live, then volleyed images and clips back and forth via text.

Still from Revenge of the Creature (1955), which painter Jinn Bronwen Lee considers a key inspiration. “While I’m at the studio, I think I’m Frankenstein. But later I realize: I’m the monster.”

Do you have any warm-up rituals or inspirations to help you start working?

Yes. The images that pulls at my heart strings are usually old monster movies.

I love early cinema. Back then [more than today], movie space involved this silent agreement between strangers to believe this is reality for a couple hours. I’m into the clunky costumes and how they made special effects without any special effects. That required a lot of thought based on texture and form. You can observe how a monster-suit moves if a human is inside. Because everything is black and white, you can see value change and tonal shifts and interesting textures.

There’s a scene from The Revenge of the Creaturethe sequel to Creature from the Black Lagoon—where a human diver delivers a picnic basket underwater to the creature. I don’t know why, but that scene always gets me ready for studio-mode. If I were an athlete, that’d be my prep song.

Another movie I look at [for inspiration] is Carl Theodor Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc. It’s a silent film that’s all about the gaze: the direction of actors’ gazes, how things shift and triangulate [with gazes]. It’s all about invisible geometry, how light fits into shapes.

Film stills from Carl Theodor Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928).

Film stills from Carl Theodor Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928).

2 of 8 drawing series after The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928). By Jinn Bronwen Lee

2 of 8 drawing series after The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928). By Jinn Bronwen Lee

You usually make paintings in groups. How did that come about?

What started as a practical thing became what needs to happen for the works to make sense. Let’s say I have one painting going. I move it through a certain stage and think: now I want the surface to dry to a specific point so I can try for a certain effect. I need to put that one aside and move to a new painting. I may bring numbers two and three to a different point. I tune them individually, and also to each other, like a band [or orchestra].

It’s like those female oyster-divers in Japan and Korea. You hold your breath and go down; you only have so much time to gather what you need. But somehow you develop moves over years of diving, moves you didn’t think were natural or possible before.

What happens when you get stuck on one or the other painting?

Sometimes you have to scrape the whole thing, or you might just smear it and see what happens. The painting could survive and become a different work. Or it’s just gone and you have to make a new painting on top of it, like a burial ground.

Installation view of Jinn Bronwen Lee’s paintings from Moto Ondoso Stabile (Average Waves in Unprotected Waters), z20, 2017, Rome: http://bit.ly/z20moto

That’s funny because designers also work in digital layers, just as writers work in drafts and revisions. But unlike painters, writers and designers can jump back to any layer at any time.

True. Another tactic is that I draw a black-and-white, early-cinema version of my own painting in charcoal. Sometimes that solves an issue. It also helps me determine durations: both for the process of painting, meaning how fast or how quickly things should dry and what should happen next, but also durations of how I want things to be revealed. I might not want people to see that path first – you know, scramble the trajectory, leave fake bread crumbs.

When I’m unable to see clearly what the next step is, I often put a light source inside the painting.

Still from Jean Cocteau’s 1946 film Beauty and the Beast, an inspiration to painter Jinn Bronwen Lee. “Because everything is black and white, you can see value change and tonal shifts and interesting textures.”

Do you mean you shine a flashlight to the canvas, or you put a lighter color inside the picture? Is this a real light source or a fake one?

Neither. Well, both. I might paint in a light source that’s appropriate inside the painting – what would give “light” according to what’s inside the canvas already. Then I tune different parts of the painting to that light source so I can see what’s needed. [Usually] I paint out the light source later.

Sometimes you wait for a different kind of literal light. You might look at the painting during twilight or in darkness, so you can see how different values move inside the picture.

But you have to decide. If I’m imagining candlelight inside the painting, that’s different from daylight or a lamp. I ask myself: What is the light source for this weird, fucked-up cave I’m creating?

I have this ongoing joke with my partner. While I’m at the studio, I think I’m Victor Frankenstein, making things and putting body parts together so it stands up, moves, makes noises. But later I realize: I’m the monster. I’m the one who’s clunky, uttering pinched cries.

For B’s Two Chained Monkeys by Jinn Bronwen Lee

Flowers for Two Chained Monkeys by Jinn Bronwen Lee

Let’s turn to your paintings. One from this group is titled Flowers for Two Chained Monkeys. Are you throwing me off the scent with that title, or giving me a clue?

Both, probably. There’s a small Bruegel the Elder painting of two chained monkeys chained on the window sill, with a seascape behind them. To me this painting reveals, in a simple and beautiful way, what painting is and how potent it can be.

If painting is already a kind of illusory window, this particular painting makes you look through another window. Then you see living creatures who are very close to humans, monkeys, chained there. What’s behind them is a seascape – it could be a real space the creatures look out onto, or just a painted wall inside the picture. It’s a triple illusion, a painting talking to itself.

What are the “flowers” for?

My titles are often a tribute to things I’m indebted to, or thinking about. [With this work] I was also thinking about roadkill. When a living creature is flattened, weird things happen with space and composition. I was thinking about the compression of time, too. I felt like these would be the appropriate flower tribute for the chained-monkeys painting, caught in a road kill-like-space or moment.

Mephistopheles (Flowers for Soutine) by Jinn Bronwen Lee

This one, Mephistopheles Flowers for Soutine, has a lot of texture and movement in it. It looks like a big fat R, but also like an aerial shot of a roadway from a movie – you know, those car-chase scenes through twisty mountain ranges.

Oh, that’s nice. This one’s a tribute to a song called “Mephistopheles” from Wayne Shorter’s All Seeing Eye. He made this solo album in 1965, while he was also intermittently playing with Miles Davis’ group. I was listening to this song on heavy repeat while making this group.

Chaïm Soutine was a Russian-French painter, an expatriate Russian Jew living in Paris. Mephistopheles in [the Goethe play] Faust takes pleasure in collecting already damned souls. When you pay attention with a specific agenda, what you find is ultimately complicated. I always thought Soutine’s paintings were always a bit like that.

The Room of J. Alfred Prufrock by Jinn Bronwen Lee

One thing I like about your work is that the viewer completes the experience. Nobody knows entirely what’s in the picture, but you do see a certain energy, shapes, illumination. We can argue about what we think is there, but that argument is in some way the art.

People might say: That looks like a dirty sock in the mud, that looks like a wrinkly elbow in the wrong light…you can make a list of things. I like that weird, transitional zone where it reminds you of super-specific things but it’s none of the above.

I do tune what’s inside the picture so it can’t be pinned down to objects you can point to and let out a sigh of relief. I want the lists of things to do the work together, so there’s something incredibly specific in your head, and visually in front of you, yet it’s still unrecognizable. It’s important for me to have elements that are both reduced and unrecognizable. I want the reduction sauce.

If I wanted to make a painting about the way someone wrings their hands, I wouldn’t illustrate the hands [themselves]. But I may find different ways to make you feel like that gesture. Lots of things in life can remind you of other things, and those connections are complicated. Reason may not apply, but there’s a logic to that. Pictures can simulate that in-between blind zone.

Stills from Akira Kurosawa’s 1961 film Yojimbo, another inspiration to painter Jinn Bronwen Lee.

Stills from Akira Kurosawa’s 1961 film Yojimbo, another inspiration to painter Jinn Bronwen Lee.

Stills from Akira Kurosawa’s 1961 film Yojimbo, another inspiration to painter Jinn Bronwen Lee.

What are you working on next?

I am in the middle of triptych of ovals, plus a spice-cabinet-sized rectangle canvas – that’s a group of four. It’s about reflection, sight, and blindness.

I am thinking through Argus, the hundred-eyed giant in Greek mythology, and particularly his failure as a watchman. Another is [a tribute to] Flowers for Algernon, about seeing yourself come into a vision of consciousness, and with this new sight, watching yourself decline and lose that vision. Another idea of blindness is about Medusa and being slayed by staring into your own reflection. [Realizing something over time] is a kind of sight that’s super-close to blindness, due to the light of what you didn’t realize before.

Another kind of seeing is texture and touch. Blind people rely a lot on how things feel: on texture, touch, spatial orientation. The way your body measures against things becomes really important. Painting can think through this idea of texture as touch, in geometry.

Any inspirations that help you finish a painting?

If I need to get the heartbeat right [at the] finish, it is always “Yoo Doo Right” from the album Monster Movie by CAN. Malcolm Mooney’s voice carries me through, every single time.

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