Jessica Gandolf’s life has been steeped in art, from wandering the halls of the Metropolitan Museum as a youngster through arts high school, then after-school and Saturday classes at Pratt Institute, Cooper Union, and Greenwich Street Pottery, and studies at the Sorbonne, Oberlin, and Brooklyn College. “Being an artist was closely connected to my social life and my academics,” she notes on her website. “From an early age, it felt inevitable that I would become an artist.”
Over the years, Gandolf’s paintings have developed more or less in series. In the late 1990s/early aughts, she painted empathetic portraits of legendary baseball players—Yogi Berra, Ted Williams, Hank Aaron, and the like—and famous boxers, including Cassius Clay, Joe Dempsey, and Jack Johnson, all based on known images. The art historian David Becker likened them to medieval illuminations or portraits of saints.
These haunting likenesses were followed by figurative paintings related to water, “both as a source of renewal and as a source of danger,” writes Gandolf. The imagery ranged from a bayou baptism to children seated in floating bathtubs.
From there, Gandolf pretty much set aside the figure and representation in favor of exploring “pure abstraction” through color and form. This work offers engaging arrangements of organic-geometric forms with titles that might have been chosen after the fact, in response to a particular element in the composition. Some paintings reference landscape; others have a kind of techno quality, bringing to mind Tom Burckhardt’s recent work.
“Then came the wrenching events of 2020,” Gandolf recounts. “Each day seemed to usher in a series of attacks—viral, racial, political—targeting bodies both individual and collective.” She felt the body “was looking for a way to re-enter” her work, but she had no interest in painting specific people. The attributes that distinguish one figure from another—facial expressions, hairstyles—did not seem important.
Gandolf began painting what she calls “interrupted systems,” in which cropped figures interact with abstract patterns set floating on squares of color. In Dangerous Playground, 2020, the first painting in the series, a pink torso in blue trunks is overrun with road markings and various circuitry, some of it spiked. Subjected to a kind of disruptive stitching, the body is under attack—and maybe even hooked up to a ventilator.
Taking Off offers a similar composition, with the torso now encircled by five radiating lines. Do these rings represent a kind of energy field or a tightening of restrictive bonds? Gandolf acknowledges the dual reading: “Taking off implies flight, and yet the figure is very earthbound and constrained by the circular pattern around it.” The painting was the last one she completed during a very productive two-month residency at the Ellis-Beauregard Foundation in Rockland in 2020.
Focusing on the torso makes sense to someone long involved in active yoga practice. “In yoga philosophy,” Gandolf explains, “the lower torso corresponds to the first three chakras which broadly address safety, creative expression, and the power of transformation.” In her studio, she translated states of awareness achieved through her asana discipline into color and form.
Other paintings in the series are more forthright in their response to current issues, although they, too, involve enigmatic imagery. In Ashes, Ashes We All Fall Down, pieces of what might be pipe appear to tumble down the yellow picture plane. The nursery rhyme, which some say was inspired by England’s Great Plague, became a favorite song to sing while washing one’s hands in the early days of the pandemic.
The composing of these paintings begins to develop before Gandolf starts to paint. “I clear my brain and my body of excess energy,” she explains, “to focus and pay attention to what exactly is trying to take visual form.”
A similar process marks Gandolf’s recent graphite drawings. In her Catch and Release series, begun last summer while staying in Ocean Park on Saco Bay, she revisits some of the forms in her paintings. The torso, for example, reappears in A Conversation with Piero, overlaid with looping candy cane/cable shapes.
Gandolf has always been drawn to the Early Renaissance painter Piero della Francesca, to his monumental and gentle figures. “I can sense how he was standing in relation to the axis of the earth when he was making his paintings,” she writes. She emulates that centering even as she disturbs it.
In another drawing, High Tide, various markings inundate the torso. One senses the ocean here, in the wavy shapes at the bottom and overall topsy-turvy quality. As Gandolf notes, the drawing represents a “high tide of feelings as well as water.”
The times we live in give us pause while compelling us to consider our creative selves and the meaning of what we make. Gandolf’s paintings and drawings reflect an artist grappling with a disconcerting world. They are works of this moment and more.
Some questions Gandolf ponders while working on her recent paintings and drawings:
How does energy—depicted as pattern—move into and out of the body? How can sensations of compression, constriction or ease and freedom be communicated using paint?
How does the body function as a shelter for the spirit? If the body is a container for feelings and experiences, is not a painting a similar container?
When might the body itself need shelter? The vulnerabilities of the physical body have been in the forefront of the news and everyday experience during the pandemic
Is there a physics of intuition? Can it be represented in visual form? What effect does painting “without a net” have on the outcome of the painting? The paintings are not pre-planned or measured out in any way.
I’m curious about how to explore the concept of “trust” when I paint. I want to be very specific about line and color and shape and pattern without being fussy or tight in the execution of it. The wobbliness of the lines and their “imperfections” allow the paintings to breathe more than if I were filling in predetermined lines that had been measured out. This approach leaves open the possibility of humor and sometimes references to games and child’s play show up.
Image at top: Jessica Gandolf, Dangerous Playground, oil on panel, 24 x 24 in., 2020 (photo: Jay York).