When I first saw them, Jenna Pirello’s paintings struck me as a beautiful bunch of contradictionsdeliberate accidents, abstract representations, landscapes with a figurative palette of flesh tones and cosmetic colors. Is it a landscape? A still-life? A portrait? An abstraction? A table? In fact, Pirello’s art is all of these things, but more than anything else it is a process, a physical manifestation of working through ideas and information to produce a complex of imagery.

In some cases, Pirello seems to paint pure abstractions, as in the paired ribbon-like compositions of I Bet It Stung and Ice Cold.

Intrigued by what I saw, I arranged to meet Jenna Pirello at her Shapeshifters show (22 April21 May) at Elizabeth Moss Galleries in Portland. She walked over from the studio she shares with a friend at the foot of Munjoy Hill. A dark-haired, tattooed young woman, Pirello possessed an intensity and seriousness beyond her years. “I’ve always been an artist. I just hadn’t been properly trained,” she told me. “I was 18 when I started painting and I haven’t stopped.”

Jenna Pirello was born in Boston in 1988 and grew up on the South Shore. After high school, she was properly trained at Boston University where she earned her BFA in 2011 and at Yale where she earned her MFA in 2014. A turning point in her development was attending Yale’s summer intensive for rising seniors in Norfolk, Connecticut. That’s where she first experienced the intensity and seriousness of art making. That summer, Pirello realized, “This is what I want to do with my life.”

At Yale, Pirello began painting so large that her mentor gave her a mop to paint with. Her senior thesis painting was a 20foot billboard-like painting entitled Let Me Show You How I Stroke, which took its title from a Beyoncé song. Pirello often uses song lyrics and poetry to title her paintings.

After Yale, Pirello spent a year in Brooklyn before attending the Fine Arts Workshop in Provincetown, Massachusetts in 2017. The following year she moved to Portland where her Yale classmate Stephen Benenson was a co-founder of the Able Baker Contemporary gallery.

“New York is very competitive. Here people are more balanced,” says Pirello. “I want to be making art, but I also want a balanced life.”

Pirello’s Shapeshifters show looked as though it might have been several years’ worth of work, but the artist told me it was really the result of four months of focused work in the studio. “I’ve always had a pretty intense work ethic,” she says.

Fellow artist Tessa G. O’Brien, who co-directs Able Baker Contemporary, seconds that assessment. “The playful palette and energetic buzz of Pirello’s mark-making belie her rigorous work ethic,” O’Brien says. “Jenna’s process is labor intensive and exacting, requiring her deep focus and engagement with each painting through an intuitive call & response.”

Pirello seems to possess a tactile intelligence. “Things make sense to me when I can touch them and mold them,” she explains. Her physical and material approach to painting often leads to painting over and into older paintings. The bottom section of Moon Beam, for example, is a troweled surface left over from an earlier painting. It forms a terrestrial ground for a lunar landscape.

Pirello Moonbeam copy

Jenna Pirello, Moonbeam, acrylic on wood, 50 x 42 in., 2022.

The exhibition statement makes reference to “a noisy brain with a constant flow of interrupting information.” That flow of interrupted visual information is made manifest in complex acrylic on wood surfaces that are painted, yes, but also incised, built up, scraped away and shaped. “I am always struck,” says Tessa O’Brien, “by how Jenna freezes time in her paintings, making fast, expressive marks which are then traced, layered, carved, or echoed.”

That’s exactly what impressed me when I first saw Pirello’s paintings. Her work appears fast and loose when, in fact, it is quite deliberate and laboredfrozen time. Often there are discrete images embedded in these multi-layered surfacesmoons, bouquets of cut flowers, explosive tree forms, cats.

In I Won’t Bite . . . Unless You Like It (a title from a Bruno Mars and Anderson Paak song), Pirello depicts her cat Millie as a playing card queen.

Pirello I won t bite unless you like it copy

Jenna Pirello, I Won’t Bite . . . Unless You Like It, acrylic on wood, 60 x 38 in., 2022.

In Morning Song, the full moon and the dark side of the moon seem to coexist in a complicated geometric relationship.

Pirello Morning Song copy

Jenna Pirello, Morning Song, acrylic on wood, 42 x 68 in., 2022.

Both of these aforementioned works are shaped paintings that subvert the convention of the rectangle and frame.

Pirello Sidekicks 6 copy

Jenna Pirello, Sidekick 6, acrylic on wood, 12 x 9 in., 2022.

Pirello calls her smaller paintings Sidekicks, a chummy designation for works that punch above their size. Several contain single words painted on the surface“Butter,” for instance, and “Honey.” “Words and texts have always been important to me,” Pirello says. “I like words in paintings. It’s like a mantra setting a tone.”

Pirello Sidekicks 14 copy

Jenna Pirello, Sidekick 14, acrylic on wood, 12 x 9 in., 2022.

In addition to being eccentrically shaped, some of Pirello’s paintings, such as Always on My Mind (Willie Nelson), also rest on carved and painted wooden shelves that fit the painting’s irregular contours.

Pirello Always On my Mind II copy

Jenna Pirello, Always on My Mind II, Acrylic on wood, wood shelf with acrylic paint, 48 x 36 x 7 in., 2022.

While making plant stands as presents for friends and family, Pirello also discovered that her wooden furniture presented interesting surfaces to paint.

Pirello Shapeshifter 2 copy

Jenna Pirello, Shapeshifters 1, acrylic on wood, 22 x 14 ⅞ in., 2022.

“I understand the beauty of giving yourself a constraint to work on,” she says.

As a change of aesthetic paceand to help earn a livingJenna Pirello leaves Maine several times a year to paint murals for Odili Donald Odita, a Nigerian-born artist based in Philadelphia. The mural work is separate from her own art and enables Pirello to exercise that urge to paint big.

“I can move around all day and paint,” she says. “I turn in a nine hour day of physical work. You end up becoming a tool, part of a machine in a good way. Our collective hands make another’s vision.”

Pirello has worked on Odili Donald Odita murals from Philadelphia and New York to Indianapolis, Virginia, Durham NC, and Italy. Her next gig will be a month in Houston helping to execute a large-scale wall painting.

“It’s a really beautiful way to see the world,” says Pirello of her mural work.

Pirello’s Shapeshifter exhibition was the first at Elizabeth Moss Galleries conducted in partnership with Fairchain, “a tech start-up that ensures that artists will see royalties from future sales of their artwork on the secondary market.” Digital certificates of title and authenticity are encrypted and recorded on the blockchain, such that title cannot be transferred without a royalty payment to the artist. Pirello confesses that she doesn’t fully understand how the Fairchain platform works, but she is pleased that someone thinks there will be a secondary market for her work. “First,” she says, “we just have to sell it.”

The art market is the way art gets out into the world, but, like most serious artists, Jenna Pirello would be making art even if it didn’t sell. “No one else,” she says, “needs us to be painting.”


Edgar Allen Beem is the art critic for The Portland Phoenix. He has been writing about art in Maine since 1978.


Image at top: Jenna Pirello.