An Interview with Jenene Nagy

Avantika Bawa

I have been interested in Jenene’s works since 2006 when we first met in Portland, OR. Her practice has shifted from small-scale sculptural forms that explore the medium of ceramics, to abstract sculptural drawings. Around 2010, these drawings led to the making of her signature large-scale installations that respond to space with grace and control.

Most recently Jenene has been working with graphite drawings that are diligent, obsessive and perceptually intriguing. The latest of these were recently on display at her solo show, Measure, at PDX Contemporary.

All works by and courtesy of the artist.

Installation shot of Measure, PDX Contemporary, 2012

Avantika Bawa: What prompted your interest in the graphite drawings of the Measure series?

Jenene Nagy: A residency in Los Angeles in 2010 provided me with the time and space to do something in the studio I wouldn't normally allow myself to do. I have always been interested in the act of drawing. That is, the process and materials involved, more so than the idea of making a picture. I had been researching the work of the NY artist Peter Halley for a project I was curating and became interested in the optical phenomena that occurs in his work. Using his compositions as a foil, I developed the Measure series with the intention of fully exploring graphite as a material and the act of drawing as the residue of process. Labor has also always been an interest of mine. I used to think it would be great fun to work as a farmer or a ditch digger for a summer. I like the idea of seeing actual, quantifiable results. This is essentially how the drawings come into the world. As the body of work became clearer from a conceptual point of view, my interest in the work became about prompting people to look harder--to be active participants in the work. This is similar to the large installation projects in that it is this willingness on the part of the audience to complete the work.

AB: The work as a whole is immensely seductive and lush. It takes time and a certain amount of walking around to be fully experienced. This compels me to see your work from multiple vantage points, physically and conceptually, to fully experience it, thus adding another level of complexity. Can you talk a little more about perception, optical phenomena and how the medium of graphite is helping you achieve this?

JN: By using graphite I am exploiting the inherent properties of the material. It is all very simple. The pencil is used exactly in the way in which it was designed. It is the build up of the act that creates the phenomena. Light, of course, is integral to this as well, which is also where the role of the viewer comes in. When the viewer moves, the light moves, causing the composition to reveal/conceal itself. I am also interested in slowness here. The slowness it takes to make the work is similar to the slowness it requires to see it.

AB: I like what you just said about slowness and in an earlier question about labor. Endurance, too, seems to be an important ingredient in the making of your drawings. Could you talk about the parallels and/or contradictions between these gestures? How do they complement other aspects of your life? I know CrossFit is an exercise that you are extremely committed to. The frenzy and intensity it demands seems to be on the opposite end of your drawing process.

JN: I think of slowness and endurance as both having quiet rewards. There is a singular quality to both. As an academic and an administrator, I work with a large amount of people on a daily basis. The art practice keeps all of it in check.

Funny to mention CrossFit. That, too, is singular even though it is perceived to be a type of group activity. When you are in it, there is only you, which I think is why people like it. Same like the drawings. When I am in them, that is where I am. The rest gets filtered out. Also, like CrossFit, there are quantifiable results (back to digging the hole…) The marks add up to what I need them to accumulate to; next week there will be more pull-ups than the week before. I am also the kind of person who has a frenetic type of energy, so even in the slowness there is an intensity there. It’s just my personality, I guess. But it has been interesting to see how that energy can manifest in different ways.

Measure 1 (after "Lost Signal"), 2010, Graphite on paper, 50"x50"

AB: This series, too, is one of the few amongst your works that uses traditional and archival materials such as graphite on paper. In the past you have explored house paint, Tyveck, dry wall, etc. Materials that are ephemeral and not exactly ‘traditional’. Do you have any thoughts/comments about this shift? Is it temporary?

JN: I don’t think I really consider my material choices in that way, per se. I choose what makes sense most for the work. In this case, the visual complexity I am trying to achieve would not be possible with a less metallic drawing medium. In the project-based works, the material is content. Drywall and 2x4s are employed for their cultural connotations. With that being said I have been enjoying this new body of work because it is allowing me to grow more. I am having a different relationship to my studio now. There is an urgency there, which is similar to how I work on-site making the installation projects, and I am enjoying that overlap of energy.

AB: What do you mean when you say “Drywall and 2x4s are employed for their cultural connotations”?

JN: We understand them as materials of the built environment--manufactured spaces. They are the materials that dictate our movement though fabricated space.

Measure 2 (after "Three Prisons"), 2012, Graphite on paper, 75"x37"

 AB: Back to the original trigger for the drawings--Peter Halley’s paintings. Could you talk a little more about the relationship of his work to these drawings now that you have a solid body of them? And has he seen them? What was the response?

JN: Besides being a love-fest on display (I am a huge fan), the borrowing of Halley’s compositions was originally just an experiment. I needed something to hang the work on. It was fitting, because how his paintings work being a different way to talk about flatness and perception, so for me it made sense, and was a nice conceptual link.

I worked with Peter on a project I curated for Disjecta when I was serving as their Curator-in-Residence. It was during this time I told Peter about the work. In a bar,  late at night, after the opening for his show (I think I was working up the nerve). He was intrigued and interested. He saw them in NYC is a show a few months after and said he thought they were terrific and had a “ghostly silvery quality”, which I loved.

The work is now moving past the borrowed compositions. I am inventing my own, using maps as a launching off point. I am also working on a series of shaped drawings in an attempt to further complicate the image/object conversation I have been interested in for some time.

AB: You are currently the artistic director of Painting at Anderson Ranch, correct? How do you like living there and how do you successfully balance your role as an artist and curator?

JN: It’s a pretty idyllic situation. Besides being located in one of the most visually stunning places in the country I am constantly surrounded by art makers and creative thinkers. This summer Jessica Stockholder was on campus with her family, and I got to spend some time with her. She is another one of my art heroes. I’ve invited Tom Sacks to return to the ranch as a Visiting Artist and look forward to getting to know him more. He was one of our Featured Artists this past summer as well.

I live on campus and have a studio here, so just the lack of a commute is a huge thing in terms of time management. Last year, living in Atlanta, I would sometimes have to drive up to 45 minutes to get home from my studio. Now it’s just a 500-yard jog. The ranch is fairly isolated, so there aren’t many big city distractions. I work at the ranch, work in the studio, and go to the gym. It’s a lucky life.

AB: What’s on the horizon for you now?

JN: 2013 is looking busy and good. In February I will be up at Peninsula College in Port Angeles, WA to do a large installation project there. I am looking forward to being up in the Pacific NW during such a quintessential season in terms of weather. It is also the first installation in a while; the last was at Whitman College in early 2011. April I will return to Atlanta for a solo show at Get This! Gallery that will feature new works on paper. I have been really engaged with the drawings, so it will be exciting to see how a body of work not relying on Halley’s compositions comes together. The compositions for the Atlanta show are abstractions based on maps of the city before and after the 1996 Summer Olympics. Fall will be another large installation project for the Center for Visual Art in Denver. Also, in January, the three lithographic editions I produced as a Ford Family Foundation Golden Spot Resident at Crow’s Shadow are being shown at PDX Contemporary Art in Portland. These will be alongside the five other artists who artists who participated in that program: Eva Lake, Pat Boas, Arnold Kemp, Storm Tharp and Susan Murrell.


Jenene Nagy is a visual artist living and working in Aspen and Los Angeles. She received her BFA from the University of Arizona in 1998 and her MFA from the University of Oregon in 2004. Nagy’s work has been exhibited nationally and internationally at venues including the Portland Art Museum, Weatherspoon Art Museum, Torrance Art Museum, Takt Kunstprojektraum in Berlin, Germany, and Dam Stuhltrager in NY, among others. Recent awards include an Individual Artist Fellowship from the Oregon Arts Commission, a three-month residency at Raid Projects in Los Angeles, and in 2011 Nagy was named as a finalist for the Contemporary NW Art Awards. Along with a rigorous studio practice, Nagy is one half of the curatorial team TILT Export:, an independent art initiative with no fixed location, working in partnership with a variety of venues to produce exhibitions. From 2011-12 she was the Curator-in-Residence for Disjecta Contemporary Art Center in Portland, Oregon. Currently, Nagy serves as the Artistic Director of Painting and Printmaking at Anderson Ranch Arts Center. jenenenagy.com

Avantika Bawa is an artist living in Portland, OR and New Delhi, India. She is Art Editor and co-founder of Drain. avantikabawa.net