Janet Werner in front of her painting “Crying Eyes” (2011). Photo by M-KOS
Montreal based painter Janet Werner is currently showing a new body of work within Parisian Laundry’s main space. Throughout her painting career, Werner has been engaged with the genre of portraiture, focusing primarily on female figures. She collages and transforms images from fashion magazines, popular culture and naïve painting, to invent altered personalities with these source materials, in addition to creating new narratives. Werner plays out a tension between fiction and reality to question notions of beauty, often by distorting and messing up the posing women. The resulting paintings not only astound by their sense of scale, composition and color, but also draw the viewer into the inner psyche of Werner’s counterfeit characters. Werner talks to M-KOS about her new exhibition, and of the ways she produced her latest body of work.
M-KOS [MKOS]: Can you tell us about your choice of title “Earthling” for this exhibition at Parisian Laundry?
Janet Werner [JW]: [laugh] The reason I’m laughing is because it was so hard for me to come up with a title, I really struggled. It was one of the first titles I thought of, but I kept looking and looking. Titles are extremely difficult for me. But in the end I went with it. What was your question, why did I use the title?
MKOS: Yes, does it have to do with the people in the paintings?
JW: Well, I feel like the work is existential in nature and when you take an existential position you usually think of it in terms of: I’m here right now, on earth, at this moment. But to call it Earthling is like taking a different perspective of that same experience. It was as if they were aliens but in fact, it’s us, if you looked at us as though we were aliens. I was just thinking of the beings who are cast here, in these paintings.
MKOS: To acknowledge the physical presence of these beings?
JW: Yes, and that they’re all undergoing some transformation, or they appear to be in a state of transition. Something is happening. Or something is appearing to them or they look like they’re seeing something. There’s a problem indicated by their facial expression, their posture.
MKOS: Is this part of a specific series or is it more an ongoing evolution of your main body of work?
JW: It represents one year of production, but I don’t work in series, really. I just work on an ongoing thematic continuum. If you look at my last show, it was more luscious and beautiful in a certain way, and not quite so dark. But it’s not that different: It’s still portraits, still playing with distortion, still playing with different ways of presenting a figure. Just the cast has shifted a little.
Janet Werner, Earthling, 2012. Oil on canvas. Permanent collection of Musée d’art contemporain de Montréal
MKOS: There also seems to be quite a lot of women in your work. Is this a recurring theme that comes naturally in your studio or is it to put forward a feminist perspective?
JW: It’s a good question, it always comes up: Why women? I tried to do a man and I always mean to do more men, my last show had more animals in the paintings, but the women are always recurring partly because I think there’s an aspect of self-portraiture, it’s about my own identity, subjectivity.
MKOS: Are these paintings an extension of yourself?
JW: I believe the work has a lot to do with my subjectivity because it’s the one that I understand the most and it’s also the one that I see reflected in culture the most. Images of women are everywhere. I think that it’s easier for us to project onto images of women. They’re like empty ciphers that you project all these narratives onto. I’m very interested in that. Images of men don’t lend themselves in the same way to that kind of projection.
MKOS: Would you say that women are more self-conscious of the image they are projecting? That women are looked at as images, even as objects?
JW: Men look at women’s images and women look at women’s images. I don’t think about women as objects. Maybe some men do, but for women looking at women, I think they look at them as subjects. They project their own subjectivity, their own narrative. I don’t think they see themselves or these images of women as objects so much. So its not really a critique of that.
MKOS: At the same time, you seem very good at drawing, you could surely draw and paint elegant human forms if you wanted to. But this not the case. Is this where you find your expression, in un-beautifying the paintings we are seeing here today ?
JW: Yes very much so. Playing with proportions and allowing the speed of the execution to manifest some kind of expression. That is interesting to me. And I seem to get into trouble when I correct things. If I correct things to make them right, inevitably I end up in a place that I didn’t intend, so I’m trying to do less of that. But it’s hard because I do have that training and I know how to fix things and make them look right. So I’m always riding that edge, I want it to be convincing but I don’t want it to be too obsessively busy with finishing something.
Janet Werner, Stalker, 2012. Oil on canvas. Courtesy the artist and Parisian Laundry
MKOS: Would that make them more images and less paintings ?
JW: It would make [the paintings] more self-conscious, in a way that I don’t want. I want them to be a little raw and direct. And if you are really careful in modeling, rendering, to make it just so, then it changes their meaning… I like the abbreviation, I want things to be said with as little fussing as possible.
MKOS: What about the figures in your painting, are they real people?
JW: No they’re all collaged, almost always drawn from source material: Either fashion magazines, popular culture, naive paintings… They come from multiple sources. Some are purely invented, others are combinations of invention and observation. I’m trying more and more for them to be less tied to photographic material but I do always refer back to it.
MKOS: Then we have color, which seems very important to you. Not necessarily pure or primal colors, but beyond the subject matter of these paintings, color seems very much a focal point of attention in your production.
JW: Yes I’m relying on color to produce meaning, without it being something that you can articulate. I like what you said earlier about the figure being like a decoy. Although the figure is always central, there’s something else I’m trying to allude to – a tone, a mood or a psychological state – through color
MKOS: And there’s something in the show’s press release about witchcraft, can you elaborate on that ?
JW: The idea of witchcraft is not so much in evidence in this show, maybe more in my last show. I guess it’s just a reference to the metaphysical or supernatural. Or just the strangeness of being. What’s happening? What’s causing her to have those markings? Is it an internal psychological thing? What does it represent? It’s not really meant to represent flaws in her skin, it’s an allusion to some other kind of manifestation.
MKOS: One is tempted to speak of the failure of these images, images failing to present a flawless beauty or perfect control. There’s something going out of control. Almost the early first signs of dementia. Perhaps women losing control of their own image?
JW: I think of it more as a complexity of experience. Whether you want to think about it in terms of aging, or just that existential condition.
Janet Werner, Crying Eyes, 2011. Oil on canvas. Courtesy the artist and Parisian Laundry.
MKOS: Traditionally when an artist makes a portrait, the first reflex is to portray the person looking better, nobler, or to possess an eternal quality.
JW: But I’m trying to mess them up.
MKOS: Yes you are. Are you this way putting forward a form of criticism of the stereotypes of beauty?
JW: Yes a little bit. For a while I was making very beautiful images. This [exhibition] is the flipside, a reaction from my previous work. My work has cycled from being completely imaginary in the 90s, they were very frontal and completely troubled. Then I used photographic material and so all of a sudden beauty became a central part of the subject matter. I’m working my way back [to troubled images] by deviating from the photograph. Because I’m not just trying to represent what’s on the surface, I want to talk more about inside/outside.
MKOS: In the previous series there were also a lot of animals, and bits of nature appearing in the background. You still had the portraits but their environments were more localized in a sort of canadiana landscape. Is that something you’re moving away from now ?
JW: I have gone away from it for the moment, these works I identify more with the prairies, they’re about empty space. I just wanted to have them be incredibly simple this time.
MKOS: So these expanses of color around your figures are allegorical to wheat fields ?
JW: Or just the idea of a color space. A space that is indeterminate and not grounded, which creates a sense of disorientation.
Janet Werner, Twins, 2012. Oil on canvas. Courtesy the artist and Parisian Laundry
MKOS: With this series of works at Parisian Laundry, are you planning to show these again?
JW: There’s a big survey of Canadian art at Mass MoCA, the Oh, Canada show opening at the end of May. I’m pretty excited about that. Three of these paintings will be there.
MKOS: Are you showing anything else that’s new, not done yet for Oh, Canada?
JW: These are new [laugh]. I’ll also have a show that’s going to travel, that will be new work, with maybe some older key images. It’s going to start off in Saskatoon, of all places.
MKOS: Your spiritual home?
JW: Yeah, exactly. Then I hope it will come to Montreal but I’m not sure yet. It’s not confirmed. It may go to Winnipeg also and possibly London (Ontario). I’m trying not to schedule too many things at the moment because I’m tired of working to deadlines.
MKOS: Speaking of Winnipeg, there seems to be a lot of enthusiasm for artists from that region, a school of Winnipeg even. Do you feel attached to this group in terms of style or community?
JW: Yes and no because I left Winnipeg when starting my art studies, I studied in the States. I’m older than that generation of hot young Winnipeg artists. They came after me. [laugh] My training and my sense of art community came after I left Winnipeg. But I feel a link to the prairies, and I’m more known in the prairies than I am here [in Montreal]. I do feel like a foreigner here, not as much as before because I’ve been here for 12 years, but it takes a long time and it is a really different art scene. I think the link for me is always about the space in the prairies. The light and the space and the response to colour. I don’t know if anyone [else] would make that connection, necessarily. ■
Interviewed by Oli Sorenson
Janet Werner was born in Winnipeg and lives and works in Montreal. She received her BFA from the Maryland Institute College of Art in Baltimore and her MFA from Yale University, New Haven, CT. Werner has shown widely in Canada including solo shows at the Art Gallery of Windsor, SBC Gallery, Montreal, The Mendel Art Gallery, Saskatoon, The Contemporary Art Gallery, Vancouver, The Ottawa Art Gallery and Plug In Institute of Contemporary Art, Winnipeg. Recent group exhibitions include Generation at the Art Gallery of Alberta, Intrus/Intruders, at Musée du Québec and Entre/Voir, at Galerie de l’UQAM, Montreal. Internationally, her work was presented at the Prague Bienale and will be featured in the upcoming survey exhibition Oh, Canada at MASS MoCA, North Adams, MA. Werner’s work is in the collections of the Department of Foreign Affairs, the Musée du Québec, The Owens Art Gallery, Leonard and Bina Ellen Art Gallery, The Mendel Art Gallery, The Winnipeg Art Gallery and numerous corporate collections. Werner is represented by Parisian Laundry, Montreal; Birch Libralato, Toronto; Galerie Julia Garnatz, Cologne.
Janet Werner: Earthling
30 March – 28 April 2012
3550 St-Antoine West
H4C 1A9 Canada