Artist on Artist: Aaron Collier on Rachel Jones

Rachel Jones, It's Almost Like it Was, 2011. Oil on plastic. Courtesy the artist.

Call me crazy, but there is a daydream that I entertain of New Orleans artist Rachel Jones preparing for the day’s labors. As the dream goes, Rachel stirs about in her Mid-City kitchen (which doubles as her studio) to have morning coffee with the modestly scaled, recently trimmed, paper-thin sheets of plastic that she will momentarily transform into paintings, many of which are born alla prima. After making sure that these white, mute sheets don’t take cream and sugar, Rachel—soft-spoken among her peers—must employ a firm tone as she breaks the news to these otherwise flimsy pieces of slick plastic that today she’ll be asking them to carry twenty-seven times their weight in oil paint. With a salvo of courteous pleas to “please hold” the glutted paint that typifies the surface of her paintings, Rachel kneels to tenderly address the Yupo (the plastic’s trade moniker) by its first name. The white plastic bows or flops (who knows how to read these things) in concession and the day’s work begins.

Anyone who crept into the cozy, bead and barge-boarded back room of The Front last month surely witnessed the industrious care with which Rachel handles her craft. “The goal,” according to her statement, “is to design a painting that generates as intense of an experience as possible; to impart a presence that defies their scale, and fill [the paintings] with a density and a kind of pressure that can only exist in this kind of format.” To this end, Rachel designs not only the paintings themselves, but the space that these urgent images inhabit, to envelop visitors in a constructed yet convivial environment. For example, It’s Almost Like it Was, the doorman to the show, presents a high-contrast orbit that stares in what could be taken for appeal or judgment. After such a confrontation, one realizes that the wall behind this piece and its sunny companion, We Never Forget, has been cast a warm grey rather than the sterile and objective white customarily backing contemporary painting. A similar maneuver, which slips upon the viewer like a mild change in the weather, was used in Rachel’s 2010 exhibition of hand-sized paintings on Yupo also at The Front affectionately titled “All My Love (To You, My Love).” These types of decisions are ostensibly intended to serve the visual traits of the individual paintings, such as the two dribbles of chromatic pink that ride the crest of a viridian wave in I Searched for You, but they are forthright in leading the viewer to feel tended to as well. Akin to watching a rock and roll band revel in its own live performance, entering into an exhibition of Rachel’s work creates the sensation that the viewer is being played for.

Her subject matter swoons back and forth between the nameable and unnamable in a manner that simulates re-imagining and recollection, both processes alluded to in the paintings’ predominantly first-person and time-referential titles. The landscapes that often take shape in the images are not those of just anywhere, countenances not those of just anyone, yet there is not enough specificity present to render either readily identifiable. Pictured are what seem to be dim re-visions and incomplete, arbitrary recounts; like memories, the unremarkable and beatific share an edge. The end of a rainbow, as discovered in What Were We Thinking?, reveals not a pot of gold or a lush Eden, but an anonymous, barren patch of desert resembling the place our car breaks down in our dreams. One would expect this type of elusive subject matter to be treated in thin washes and skeins of paint, resembling veils between the present and the tantalizingly close but irretrievable past. These expectations are broken, however, as one approaches the surface of these images and discovers their feverishly caked construction. These paintings (and their maker) seem determined to preserve every bit of fleeting nuance with as much materiality as possible, encrusting every trace of the truncated memory of the night’s sky or spider’s web to the page in an archival desperation. Figuring out to whom these seeming fragments of experience or reminiscence belong is one of the most enjoyable searches that Rachel’s work instigates. One leaves the paintings satisfied to believe these unapologetically sentimental remembrances to be Rachel’s, or his own, but then discovers on the walk or drive home a better and higher third option. Perhaps the grandest scenario is to conceive of these strikingly memorable images of forgotten events as belonging to neither Rachel nor to us, but something now graciously shared.

Rachel Jones, What Were We Thinking?, 2011. Oil on plastic. Courtesy the artist.