WINDOW DRESSING By Bruce Helander
Throughout history, artists have enjoyed exploring new territory in order to test themselves while pushing the limitations of their creativity. In the early development of painting, it was a challenge just to lay down homemade oil color on a hard surface, color mixed accurately and manipulated to reflect one’s selected environment. Step by step, the process of painting became scientific and was passed on from one generation to the next.
Some of the most important strides in picture making were visual impressions of the surrounding landscape and decorative compositions of interior still-lifes. Court painters were relegated to fashioning a believable pre-photography “snapshot” to preserve posterity and flatter their subjects. Since then, documenting faces and figures has remained pretty much the same. Commissioned portraits were generally staid and needed to fit comfortably and stylistically into a consumer’s perception of acceptability. There wasn’t much room or motivation to deviate from the adequate, predictable and required norm. On the other hand, those artists who fancied carrying a paint box and a portable chair in a backpack down a mountain trail, or had the facility and vision for creating a dramatic still-life composition, had a full-blown carte blanche to satisfy themselves and others with any perspective, made up or real, that stimulated their creativity.
So, it was the figure that seemed to get short-changed in the innovation department, except for the likes of Picasso and a few noteworthy others, and currently, John Currin. Renderings of the outdoors and compositional studies indoors began to gain attention and started influencing innovation and a barrier-breaking attitude, from Impressionism to the hybrid color field pastels of Wolf Kahn to the photorealist-inspired crystal clear still-lifes by Claudio Bravo. But like every new stylistic saturation point, whether in theater or fine arts, artists are always exploring new methods and approaches to a standard tune. In the case of Jenness Cortez, whose amazingly skillful work is on view during a summer show at DeBruyne Fine Art in Naples, Florida, this artist has developed an insightful and inventive twist to the staid, interior still-life by bringing a complex, hyper-realist, multi-layered metaphorical referenced composition to the viewer.
Like so many artists, Jenness Cortez (born in 1944) was fortunate to discover her unusual talent at an early age and began formal art studies at sixteen under the guidance of the noted Dutch painter, Antonius Raemaekers. Almost any artist worth their salt can reconstruct a moment in time when luck and motivation came together with the inspirational tutelage of a visionary teacher who directed and molded the fires of raw talent into a burning desire for accomplishment. After high school, Cortez developed a solid fine arts background as a graduate of the Herron School of Art in Indianapolis and later as a student of the noted painter Arnold Blanche at the Art Students League in New York City. In the mid-seventies, Cortez began a twenty-year concentration on sporting paintings and her powerful depictions of the horse. During this period, the artist received international acclaim for her work, with complimentary comparisons of drama and draftsmanship to George Stubbs and Frederic Remington.
During the mid-1990s, Cortez’s long-time interest in constructing landscapes began to blossom like a desert flower nourished by experience and an inquisitive eye. Taking a cue from the nineteenth century Hudson River School and Barbizon School painters, Jenness Cortez’s expansive vision comprehends all of nature as a manifestation of the divine. As the artist polished and refined her craft, her refined images evoked a transcendent quality that is rarely equaled in contemporary picture making.
In the artist’s most recent exhibition in Olde Naples, Cortez presents the viewer with a dramatic and symbolic magical mystery art history tour that packs a myriad of direct and indirect snippets of history’s celebrated painters. These are complicated and ambitious works ripe with a wink to the past, where all of the paintings incorporate art about art. Jan Vermeer’s well-known work, “Woman with Scales,” has a lot in common with Cortez’s approach as both artists retain a degree of secrecy and layers of freshly varnished background details. The serene attitude of both artists is sustained throughout a strong, stable composition. Like Vermeer, Cortez places us at an intimate, voyeuristic distance within a relatively shallow space that has been molded around a central focal point. The results: Cortez’s pre-painting homework and underlying grid of horizontals and verticals are arranged in such a believable, natural circumstance that one could not replace a single element without upsetting the delicate balance she has created.
Jan van Eyck’s iconic and perhaps most memorable painting on panel, “The Arnolfini Marriage,” has some rather similar qualities and familiarity as Cortez’s “Focus of Attention,” also on panel and also reflective of ingenious perspective that allows the viewer to “inspect” a room full of clues and references. One of the discreet bits of evidence in the van Eyck picture portraying a young couple solemnly exchanging wedding vows is the images reflected in the mirror behind the newlyweds. One image, a quasi-DNA-thumbprint, is the artist as conductor, manipulator, architect and scenic designer, circa 1434, who assists in witnessing a ceremony transferred to a studio easel that permanently registers the event. The second figure, perhaps a dealer, remains a mystery.
In “Focus of Attention,” as in “The Arnolfini Marriage,” the artists employ a shaded window on the left side that diffuses the light so that it simply dusts the interior objects with a warm glow. The drapery, tied at the waist as depicted in Cortez’s picture, was a challenge to create, just like the material covering the suspiciously pregnant bride-to-be, who tries in vain to hide her little secret. In both paintings, Turkish rugs on plank floors form a blueprint for a vanishing point as well as the overhanging rafters and lamps in the center. A “Meditating Bodhisattva” sculpture from the Ming Dynasty also anchors a peaceful presence in Cortez’s background, but the artist updates her interior, which could also provide a lovely spot for a private ceremony without smoking mirrors and posing figures. In this composition, Norman Rockwell’s classic, “The Connoisseur,” portrays a polite gentleman, arms behind holding his hat, as he laboriously contemplates a Jackson Pollock drip painting that opens up a third window into this quite convincing parlor game. In the foreground, Rockwell’s “Saying Grace,” a warm portrait of a prayerful couple, is scrutinized by restaurant patrons. Continuing on this journey, your eye then travels beyond the table through another painted curtain and finally through another window to the street outside. If the art history references aren’t sufficient, Cortez showcases a small bookend library that includes the Rockwell “Saturday Evening Post” magazine cover, “Freedom of Speech,” along with carefully calculated titles on Degas, Cezanne, Rembrandt and Rubens.
Jenness Cortez loves to mix up a generous tossed salad with herbs du Provence and Italian/Dutch dressing that blends in the classic influences of Dürer, Homer, Caravaggio, Inness, Chardin, Rubens and a touch of Matisse for his recipe of bright color. Vermeer often depicted his art-dealing mother-in-law’s paintings in his compositions. The picture “Vermeer’s Amaryllis,” which reproduces “Woman Holding a Balance,” mentioned earlier, is overtly allegorical. The woman stands between a depiction of the Last Judgment and a table representing material possessions. The empty scale suggests a balancing act where the spiritual overshadows earthly pleasures and positive choices are to be made. Cortez juxtaposes the old and the new, including bright blooms of a feminine pink bouquet near a nourishing pile of fruit, representing the rewards of well-chosen actions in life.
In “The Prize,” Cortez sets up a composition utilizing a shelf full of books that seem to celebrate the courage and stamina depicted in George Bellows’ “Stag at Sharkey’s.” Here the viewer observes the ringside crowd where two boxers battle to win. The spoils of victory may be found on the shelf below: a bottle of single malt scotch, a wad of money, a classic car photograph. The books give a hint of struggle and ultimately, victory or defeat, with titles of “Ali,” “Trump,” “Marilyn,” “The Gladiators,” “The Kentucky Derby” and “Beyond Glory,” with an engraving of Napoleon Bonaparte thrown in for good measure.
With Cortez’s characteristically idiosyncratic portrayals of the art of art, we find ourselves pleasantly mesmerized by the complexity of these all-star, recognizable, historical references. Illustrated brilliantly here are the victorious and unusual talents of a splendid artist who brings life anew to familiar images that serve as windows into a private, compelling, imagined space. Her virtuosity dazzles the eye and romanticizes and rekindles our affection for savoring masterstrokes by master artists.
Bruce Helander is the editor of “The Art Economist” magazine, artist and national art critic.