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Nicole Carroll Art Consulting

Balance in the Abstract—Painter Jenny Nelsonby Ross Rice

Art means many things to many different people—as an expression, a vision, sometimes merely a decoration. But ask any artist what their art “means,” and you’ll get a cornucopia of well-considered answers that will often have one theme in common: whatever the “meaning” is, the art itself is a means of searching for it. For a representational artist, the search can be how to juxtapose recognizable elements into a unique statement, or a search for an alternate reality that better transmits a message. But what of the abstract artist, who, eschewing representational imagery, therefore makes their search in a territory that has no signposts or references to the “real world” whatsoever? Operating in a private language with motives known only to themselves, what is anyone to make of these artists’ color swatches, amorphous shapes, and odd lines?

And the answer is: whatever you can, which by the way can be a great deal when it’s done right. Woodstock-based painter Jenny Nelson has made herself a niche in the modern-day abstract tradition, bringing her voice to a discussion started years ago by Kandinsky and Mondrian, continued by Twombly and Diebenkorn, and doing so with a strongly recognizable style and vision. It’s true that Jenny’s paintings aren’t of objects, but of elements: serenity, strength, and energy. Often all on one canvas.

North, 9"x14", 2009

Though she knew at a very early age that she wanted to be an artist, it took awhile before Jenny found her voice in the abstract style. With early undergraduate work at the Portland School of Art (Maine), and completion of her degree through the Continuing Studies Program at Bard College, she went on to a transformative four-month residency in Lacoste, France. “An amazing experience, it was a 14th Century village. They gave me this wonderful stone cottage, a studio, and three meals a day. All we did was eat and paint, eat and paint.” Having up until then had to squeeze her art in and around her waitressing schedule, this was just what she needed to make the necessary breakthrough.

“That’s where I began to turn to abstraction. I had been painting a lot, I had done a lot of Renaissance figure drawing and still life painting, some figure painting. It was really there that I made my first successful abstraction, from still life.” And as for finally completing her degree, “Definitely the best thing I got out of it was the self-discipline.”

Cruiser, 36"x26", 2010

Rather than transistion into academia and a Masters, Jenny opted to produce work, “put myself out there,” while keeping the waitress gig for the bills. Acting as her own agent, she was pretty fearless about doing the things that needed doing to have a presence: the calls, e-mails, assembling packages and sending them out, continuing the process over years. “I’ve learned how to do the business side of it, which I never thought was me!” Persistence paid off, starting with the shows in restaurants and libraries, resulting in acceptance into group shows at the better galleries, ascending through a sequence of exhibitions culminating in a solo show at a prestigious venue. A 2000 solo show at Carrie Haddad Gallery in Hudson signaled her arrival.

Jenny kept up a steady output of works, many directly influenced by the variety of studios she created in. “I’ve worked in barns, sheds. I was up at Byrdcliffe for four years. The paintings were so affected by the spaces.” It was hard to build up momentum, however, always having to pack up and relocate every six months or so.


Switching to full-time artist mode five years ago and moving into her own personal studio just over five months ago has made an enormous difference, and just in time, as she has just added three galleries in the last year showing her work—Ann Irwin Fine Art, Atlanta GA; Bryant Street Gallery, Palo Alto CA; and Dragonfly Gallery, Martha’s Vineyard, MA—to the Tria Gallery in Chelsea, NYC and the Chace-Randall Gallery in Andes NY. Each gallery requires between five and ten new works in the coming months. Somebody’s going to be a busy bee this Spring.

Up until recently Jenny has also been teaching classes in abstract art at Woodstock School of Art, as well as Barrett Art Center in Poughkeepsie, and she’s been pleasantly surprised to find she is learning as much from the process as the students are, having had to invent a curriculum from scratch. “I had no idea how to convey these ideas. I had to invent exercises that pushed people into thinking abstractly,” often involving play and experimentation. Some of those exercises have come in handy, but what’s resonated the most for Jenny is seeing the students deal with the challenge of non-representational creation. A challenge that she shares intimately. “The thing that comes up over and over again—especially in abstraction—is: you’re lost. You’re just lost, and you don’t know what happens next. There’s just total frustration, a sense of ‘it’s not working out.’ I’m not drawing a mountain, and there it is, I know what happens next. I DON’T know what’s going to happen next, so I often find myself uncomfortable, or floating. And I go there on a daily basis.”

Sailor, 36"x36", 2009


Living next to the studio with her husband, fellow artist and jack-of-all-trades Jim Madden, Jenny has a nice short commute, to a world where there are no computers allowed, and a table full of color awaits. “Talking about process, it’s an interesting thing because it’s not all about the painting, its that whole state of being and getting ready to do it. Everybody does it differently, it’s a really personal thing. And it’s hard for artists to come to terms with their process because it’s not all about the brush on the canvas, it could be taking a walk, getting on your bike, having a cup of tea and sitting on the couch and staring at your work for two hours.”

“Sometimes when I have to mix a palette, like if I have finished something and it’s time to begin again, and I have a new canvas up there…I can sit on the couch for quite awhile! It can take up to a couple of days because the concentration has been so intense on the (previous) piece, that when it’s done it’s like, whew. And then to begin again…I might just have to have a cup of tea, and sit on the couch.” Somebody witnessing this part of Jenny’s process might be inclined to say “what’s this? She’s not working!” The pause—and reset—is a necessary part of the process, rest assured, there’s plenty of work to come once it’s started.

Sunporch I, 8"x10", 2009

Mixing a palette takes about 20 minutes, and it’s a sign of renewal, often accompanied by music by something up-tempo and funky like Parliament/Funkadelic to get on the good foot. “It’s a thing that signals ‘you’re starting again! You’re gonna get lost! You’re gonna get frustrated!’ And then when the wonderful thing happens, every time it’s like: that’s why (I do this.)” Tension and release: the classic artistic underpinning.

Jenny shows me a sample of the new series she is completing for the upcoming show at the Chace-Randall, with a large canvas in the center of the wall, flanked by two smaller, similar works that are considered “finished.” The large canvas shares the general color and shape scheme with the others, with turquoise and aquamarines, iron greys, and whitewash peppered with flashes of orange and crimson, and occasional black markings; amorphous shapes that seem rough hewn, somewhat crowded.

“The middle one is what they start out looking like. It kind of this big mess; all of the leftover paint off the palette, applied in a really unconscious way, with a lot of mark-making and just putting down color and texture to build up on, as the first, second, and third layers. At some point, when you get engaged it turns into: there’s too much blue, these shapes are relating. It then turns into what you see on either side of it.” The flanking paintings share the fundamental qualities of the unfinished, but one can see where Jenny has made adjustments, created dialogues, and refined the images into balanced and coherent statements. Though there is no discernible representative content, there is definitely something being expressed at a sub-conscious level.


But the process also requires a very conscious element as well, and Jenny gets her results by switching between the two states. “I want to have that energetic feeling of leaving things that happen to be beautiful mistakes, in combination with really making decisions about composition and color that gives me the strongest (results) I can come up with.”

“It really starts from chaos, and gets more refined and calmed down to this balance. I don’t want everything to be pretty pretty, I want there to be to be things like this,” she points to smudgy dark line on one of the finished works. The colors she constructs on her palette, the tones that give the works their cohesive vibe, have a certain “prettiness” about them, adding greatly to the overall appeal of the series.

The blue elements have been an ongoing motif in Jenny’s work, and she readily admits an affinity for water, making the upcoming Martha’s Vineyard show a special one. “I wanted to have the work go to the ocean, it seems to relate that way. And here I am living in the mountains!” But she resists the tendency to let the iron grey color motif—another favorite—take on the substance of stone and rock. “I try really hard to make it not that shape, and for (the color) to not read that way,” she says, pointing to a particular grey shape that is developing a rock-like texture. “I will get rid of that,” she laughs.


One of Jenny’s favored paint manipulation devices is a small and narrow triangular palette knife, which she uses to apply and spread paint around the canvas, building up layers of texture, and pulling out nice lines. There is a bit of paint sculpting going on, with chunky bits scraped from the palette incorporated into the topography, dried in for a week, and then blended in with following layers.

Over time elements are added, subtracted, sometimes re-added and re-subtracted…until the painting no longer needs adjustments. “It’s my internal world. When it’s finished, and I can look at it for hours, and have this feeling of calm, that everything’s in its place and where it should be…I guess I’m thinking that others will have the same experience.” They are analogies of how she feels about operating in her space, how she resolves the different chaotic elements and seeks to harmonize them into something manageable. “I’m trying to make spatial relationships that somehow resonate with how I am in the world.”

Cello 24"x24", 2009

And the results? Jenny’s paintings speak to me on a level I don’t really question; I like what I see, what I feel seeing it. The blues she paints are of blue skies and water, which have an effect of serenity on me. The bursts of red and orange and rough lines and textures speak of energy, and the purplish irons—though she keeps it from a representation of stone—imply a heaviness, a strength. There’s an organic quality, with natural balances that allow the elements to make peace with each other, a chaos has been tamed, without a loss of freedom. It works.

And now, time for another cup of tea on the couch. And fresh paint.

Jenny Nelson’s upcoming regional show will be at Chace-Randall Gallery, 49 Main St., Andes,, 845.676.4901, 5/7 through 6/20, with an opening reception Sa 5/8, 5-7 PM

Gallery Representation:

Anne Irwin Gallery Atlanta, GA []
Chace-Randall Gallery Andes, NY []
Dragonfly Gallery Martha's Vineyard, MA []
Tria Gallery Manhattan, NY []
Bryant Street Gallery, Palo Alto, CA. []

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