Heralds of the Past

Jenness Cortez’s anachronisms and whimsies of make-believe galleries are not quite what they first seem. They are so beautifully decorative, their curious playfulness is gently held in reserve for second looks and later thoughts.

A first broad perusal confirms the artist’s methodical execution, a control which is fundamentally reassuring to the eye. The initial layer of rectilinear shapes and colors applied as the first step in each painting is a kind of graphic design balancing act, a tectonic underpinning, which lends the final scenes a poised, becalmed stasis, edge to edge.

Not everyone is prepared to find, over these broad beginnings, the glowing, timeless details and textures of imagined facts, sustainable only as possibilities. For each fictional gallery, the best of the best, by Van Gogh, Hopper, Monet and others, have been casually purloined and positioned as motifs. These famous paintings, already in our collective memory, are displayed in would-be/couldn’t-be gallery windows with aplomb, as if they belong there.

These are wishful daytrips. An unattainably perfect past unfolds, an era rigged by legend and gossip, and by starry-eyed museum visits. How often has a museum-goer stood before a work and wondered where it was first shown? In what little gallery was it so fully admired, wrapped in paper and taken home as a prize?

In this roundabout way, the paintings within paintings are given their own appropriated, make believe context, the tightly reconsidered icons safely behind gallery windows. You want to touch them but they are, naturally, untouchable. Outside, newly dappled light grazes stone walls and lands on glistening sidewalks, filling one nostalgia with another.

This engagement of delights — what other way to describe them — begs you to loiter. A viewer jockeys between the famous little paintings and the larger Cortez macrocosm that contains them. The two are not unrelated — Cortez, as much as her predecessors, loves to paint. A viewer simply watches, but an artist always returns to the day-to-day mechanics of line, color, and painting itself.

Cortez the painter does not mime the avant garde, not of a century ago and certainly not of today, where painting shocks and recoils, struggling for aesthetic relevance. A long time has passed since the heady, difficult, upbeat years of early Modernism, since the rise of the private gallery in the twilight of the 19th Century. Cortez, working in the dawn of the 21st, makes the most of a respectful, conservative, preservationist ethic. Her paintings are old-fashioned in the best sense, pointing back to an age that glows in our minds as a halcyon ideal of lingering sunlight and easy living.

These new paintings do not bridge the gap between centuries, but instead make the gap more lucid and startling. Times really have changed. Cortez ends up clarifying the distance between their days and ours, between reaching forward and reaching back, between art that disrupts and art that soothes.

William Jaeger
State University of New York
Department of Fine Arts, Albany, New York
Mr. Jaeger is a regular contributor to “Art New England”