By Lucy McGuigan
In the kaleidoscopic worlds that Jessie Barnes conjures, preternatural swamplands threaten to spill over the foreboding chain-link fences that purport to contain them, swallowing up lost children that quietly fade into the shadows. Through the repetition of charged synecdochic forms that allude to unsettling memories of a Floridian childhood, her atmospheric scenes tantalize with vivid chromatic gradations while intimating the dangers bubbling just under the surface of sleepy suburbia. Receiving her Masters of Fine Arts from the University of North Texas this spring, her practice has recently expanded to include works that repurpose the paper stencils used in her printing process as volumetric elements of immersive installations and tangled assemblages. Her MFA thesis exhibition, “My Gethsemane”—borrowing the name of the garden where Christ suffered on the night of Judas’s betrayal—showcased her monotypes and mixed media constructions alongside photographic works and paintings that evince a prolonged and studied examination of Southern Gothic themes and the ethereal effect of diaphanous layerings
You have achieved subtle, yet impactful visual effects in your recent monoprints. Tell us about your technique and process.
I have always been drawn to printmaking because of its challenges. Overcoming the very high failure rate that print processes usually demand is exhilarating and motivating, but during my graduate studies, I grew weary of spending all of my time on traditional printmaking, such as etching or lithography. In addition to printmaking, I also need to make paintings, drawings, and/or photographs to balance my practice, so a good solution for me became the monotype. I began by painting images on plexiglass and pulling unique impressions. The relative swiftness with which I could make a painterly monotype was invigorating, and I was able to tap into the gestural, expressive part of my work that I felt had been lost to labor-intensive processes. This excitement in the studio led me to create the monotypes I am making today, which depend on cut stencil shapes, many layers of translucent color, and occasionally some graphite or pastel on the surface.
What kinds of opportunities do these techniques afford you that you don’t get working in other mediums?
I am fascinated by the idea that in printmaking, the artist is once-removed from the work itself. Because we make work using machinery, printmakers have to relinquish some control to the medium. In other disciplines, this isn’t always the case. Painting, for example, is usually very direct. It provides a single channel from mind through brush to surface. In fact, I find painting to be more difficult because of the amount of control and freedom it gives the artist. Printmaking, by contrast, relies on many variables and regulations. At this point in my career, I feel most inspired when I am balanced by technical restraint and the freedom to explore and invent within those boundaries.
Where do you draw inspiration for the themes and concepts behind your art? Are there particular artists, writers, or thinkers that have influenced this recent body of work?
I like and am inspired by a lot of creatives. I have always been drawn to Southern Gothic literature because of its descriptive language and dense symbolism. I suppose I also felt a connection to this type of writing because of my time spent in the Baptist church. When biblical allusions were made, I could understand the dramatic weight of the reference. In addition, the photographer Sally Mann has been on my mind a lot lately. I was honored to be present for her appearance at the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth, where she read a chapter from her recent memoir, Hold Still. Her controversial family portraits inspired me when I was making figurative work during my time as an undergraduate student, and as I have matured, her Deep South photographs have spoken to me just as much. I think we have a similar vision of the southern landscape and all of the ritual, ruin, and beauty found within it.
There are several charged motifs that recur throughout your recent work: the palm frond, the tendril of Spanish moss, the chain link fence, the grasping, outstretched hand. What resonances do these motifs have for you?
These motifs refer to my past, which was spent in Florida. My childhood was spent growing up in a Southern Baptist church in a state of many strange juxtapositions: wealth versus poverty, paradise versus hardship, sheltered suburbia versus wild everglades. The church I attended, and the South in general, seemed to focus mostly on dramatic situations, so naturally I began to see the beauty, darkness, and gravity of everything in my life. I reminisce about the swampy, untouched tropics that are at once alluring but dangerous, and how those layered, familiar plant shapes tell a story of much more than the land. For me, those creepy, densely forested areas are the perfect metaphor for confusing situations in our lives where our psyche cannot decide if we should be charmed or afraid. The grasping hand, I suppose, speaks to desire and longing. Usually when figures appear in my work, we are unsure of their safety. Are they peacefully engulfed in this complex world, or are they trapped in struggle and uncertainty? The chain link fence motif serves as a reminder of boundaries, and the danger or thrill of sneaking beyond them.
How does this connect with your personal memories and lived experience?
Growing up in Florida was certainly unsettling at times. Now, as an adult looking back on certain experiences and stories that oozed from the area I lived in, I still grapple with them. My work speaks to that sensation that we can’t quite describe in words; the dual perception of beauty and darkness, or of good and evil. The motifs and spaces presented in my work are all linked by personal recollections of moments where my childhood innocence turned to fear.
One of my darkest memories was discovering that child abduction was a very real thing, and seemed to be rampant in Florida in particular. My parents were always cautious and protective, though we lived in a very safe neighborhood. When I was 8, I learned of the abduction and murder of a girl my age by a teenage boy in a neighborhood not far from my home. I saw her missing posters everywhere, and her death really shook me. From then on, I feared many aspects of the world, and was especially aware of the intuitive unease of being objectified by men from an early age. These coming-of-age emotions and memories still haunt me today, and fuel the charged landscapes I create. Much of it revolves around the idea of something sacred being tainted by humankind, whether it is a body or place.
Prior to beginning this recent series of prints, you explored some of these same conceptual themes and visual motifs with darkroom photography. Can you speak a bit about those works, your decision to revisit these ideas in printmaking, and how those ideas evolved as a result?
Darkroom photography, like painting and drawing, is another way to keep my work fresh and balanced. I began making prints and photographs at about the same time in high school, so I feel very connected to how the mediums can influence each other. In the darkroom, I feel that I can simplify things, which is funny because like printmaking, there are many technical rules. I found myself wanting to make work in the darkroom about a year ago, but I wanted it to relate to the flat, graphic quality of printmaking. So instead of using film negatives, I decided to use stencils and to expose an image through a paper negative, much like the process of exposing an image to make screen prints. The results were dark, fuzzy, mysterious, and thrilling! At that time, I was making big changes to my body of work. It was moving from a focus on cases of missing children that I had encountered in my youth, to a broader study of psychological themes behind that topic, such as power, beauty, adolescence, and fear. When those familiar plant shapes entered the photographs, I was hooked, and began making spatial, printed environments instead of figurative stories.
Oftentimes printmaking is thought of as a way to make works in multiple. Not only are you creating works that are by nature unrepeatable, but the aesthetic of your work seems in many ways engendered by the specific process you’ve developed. Are there any particular printmakers who have inspired you in this regard?
Absolutely. One of my biggest influences is the scholar and artist, Ruth Weisberg. She champions the monotype, but also works in traditional processes like lithography. I learned a lot about the unique impression just by looking at her monotypes of underwater figures. I love trying to decipher process by observing intently. Her prints were like nothing I had ever seen. They were powerful and delicate, and felt like masterful watercolor paintings. In addition to her stunning visual work, Weisberg’s writing has been very impactful. Her essay, The Syntax of the Print: In Search of an Aesthetic Context, changed my life. It speaks of the intoxicating dual sensation of struggle and delight in printmaking, which I have always felt drawn to. Though her personal work does not make use of graphic stencils as much as mine does, she taught me through her research and scholarship to let the act and result of the impression speak for itself.
Some recent art historical writing has started to think about the print in relation to epistemologies. There’s the idea that the act of printing mirrors the act of committing an image—and by extension an idea—to memory. In thinking about your work and its reference to personal memory, I’m struck by the correspondence between the imprint of the image onto the support and the imprint of a memory on the psyche. Do you see this correspondence as being applicable to your work?
That’s a lovely question! Yes, I do indeed believe in this comparison, and such recent scholarship has supported my research for some time. When I am printing, I am making a dense world of space for myself to fall into. I am drawn to working serially because the repetition of printing images of the tropics and swampy forests aligns with specific memories of mine, but I realize that all memories are related. When I conjure an image of one piece of land, I feel like I open a floodgate, and every landscape of that kind spills out into my mind. Printing is very similar. Because the prints are built from a series of thin layers that relate to veils of memory, I find comfort in the building of these landscapes. They are at once things that I have seen, and things I have imagined because of this phenomenon.
Do you see your work as in any way commenting on the act of printmaking itself?
Aesthetically, I like to think that my printed work speaks to the profoundly graphic strength of the medium. It is built using extremely flat but transparent layers that no other medium does quite the same. As far as the physical act of printing - rolling ink, composing images on the press bed, and running the press - I find personal satisfaction there, but I’m not sure the work talks about it directly, and that’s ok with me. Other printmakers know and cherish that feeling, so they might be able to access that excitement and connection. I love the idea of running a piece of paper face down through a machine, and feeling the acceleration of my heart beat just before I pull the print and see it for the first time. It humbles me, and makes me vulnerable, time and time again. But when I am able to learn from and use these methods in a new way, that’s when I am most confident.
In your printmaking, there are many especially masterful uses of color. I’m especially intrigued by how you juxtapose certain hues, and the way you create tonality through a process of layering. How do you chose your palette, and how do you achieve that tonal complexity?
It takes time to learn how color works in the print studio. I have made many prints where the color is too bright, or the layers too bold and dark. I learned about the power of transparent ink when I started screenprinting, and the idea was reinforced by research on old master oil paintings and techniques. To achieve luminous color, you have to layer thin, translucent skins of pigment that have been suspended in a transparent medium. Painters such as Vermeer, who are known for their glowing masterpieces, used this method, and I find it no less compelling today. I want to create spaces that lure viewers with color, but also replicate a sense of unease with their depth. So, I start with light, translucent hues, and work my way down to foreboding, rich darks. Some prints only need 5 layers, while others require 20. The beauty of monotype is that I can respond to what comes off the press with relative ease. Because I work on multiple prints at a time, each series is connected by similar color schemes.
Describe the way you chose to hang the prints in your recent MFA Thesis show at the Cora Stafford Gallery. I think the way they were installed allowed certain qualities to be more salient.
I knew that I wanted to hang the large prints close together, so that they could work in unison to form a sort of endless space that extends even further than each sheet of paper alone. The prints have a matte surface, but vibrant color, and I talked extensively with my committee members on how I should present them. Framed prints are easier to transport, and are protected, but unframed prints are vulnerable and nothing distracts from or puts an end to the image area. I chose to mount the prints but not frame them, and the resulting installation worked well with my idea. I should also add that the cost of framing 12 large prints does not agree with my graduate salary, so that drove part of the reason, too. Nevertheless, the prints were shown floating about two inches off of the wall, with no visible hardware. The result was a little eerie and mysterious, and contributed to the feeling that a much larger space existed beyond these images than I was showing to the viewers.
This show also included some of your recent work, voluminous or three-dimensional pieces that repurpose the paper stencils you use to make your prints. Can you talk about the thinking behind some of these works?
As I was making monotypes, I began to realize that the leftover ephemera was just as important as the finished print. I love the artifice of cut paper, and how believable it can feel from a distance. I had been saving the printed stencils for some time, and used most of them to create a dimensional piece that really serves as a maquette for some installation work I plan to execute in the coming year. I have become enamored by the idea of creating an enveloping environment that explores the ideas of danger and beauty I think about when I make my prints. I’m interested in covering a space floor to ceiling with cut and painted paper plants to give viewers the physical experience of being surrounded by the illusion of a wild jungle. Perhaps they will feel like they are escaping something, or maybe they will feel trapped in memory, as I often do.
You are set to finish your Master of Fine Arts program at the University of North Texas this coming May. In what ways has your practice as an artist evolved as a result of particular experiences as a student there?
I have learned so much about myself during my time in graduate school. I came into the program excited to become more competent in traditional methods of printmaking. I am confident and well-versed in those conventions, but I learned that I gain my personal joy from a more experimental, mixed-media approach. I think this evolution came partly because of the deadlines and pressure of making work impossibly fast in school. In the rigid, structured environment of UNT’s print program, I realized the absurdity of making involved and highly technical works. For me, the monotype and other more experimental processes saved my practice. It reminded me of the delight of spontaneity, and that making art shouldn’t always be soul-crushingly serious and difficult.
What aspects of your practice are you interested in further exploring going forward?
I am very excited to be a working artist in the Dallas area. Because I will likely not have access to a print shop, my practice must evolve to incorporate something that achieves a print-like mark, but isn’t made using a press. I’m actually looking to unify my painting and printmaking practices more after I leave graduate school. Painting offers so many valuable aspects: limitless size, direct application of material to substrate, and dimensional surface quality, to name a few. Printmaking is far more technical and relies on access to machinery and facilities. Since I will be losing the ability to work in a university shop after I graduate, I am looking for new ways to make printerly work. I am really interested in treating a canvas or panel like a printing substrate, and working with flat, stenciled, airbrushed layers of translucent paint to act like veils of ink on paper. I am interested to see what I come up with by using an airbrush and paper stencils on canvas or panel. The size increase will be a new challenge. We’ll see how this merger turns out!
I am also going to continue developing cut paper installation pieces. I’m in contact with a few spaces now, so hopefully in the next few years, you will be able to take a walk through my work, instead of just viewing it on the wall!