By Hannah Means-Shannon
Delerium Imaginarium: Jen Ferguson’s Art Opening at Brooklyn Oenology, June 22nd, 2012
There seems to be this common misconception, which must have developed slowly over time, that stories are supposed to be safe, kind, and gentle. It’s not that this isn’t true of stories, but that it isn’t true enough. There is, in fact, a more detailed truth to be told about stories. Especially if we want real stories that can intersect with our real lives.
Jen Ferguson is a storyteller. The material she typically uses is paint. Sometimes she uses words, but more often, she doesn’t. A number of her paintings were installed together as a show at Brooklyn Oenology entitled “Delerium Imaginarium,” with an opening wine-tasting party on June 22th. Jen has a relationship with Brooklyn Oenology because she has designed two of their labels and the interior of Brooklyn Oenology Wine-Tasting Room is perfectly suited to Jen’s unusual, universal artwork due to its furnishings of repurposed textures and colors. Like the interior of BOE, Jen’s art is old and new, with that sharp, intriguing edge of the unexpected.
For a story to speak to you, it has to contain some elements that you can recognize. Jen tells us about something we think we might know about just enough to start that conversation, then takes us into completely new territory. Two of her larger paintings acted as centerpieces for the show, both incised against a scintillating gold-hued background: her Red Bull and her Gryphon. Jen speaks the language of mythology with uncanny accuracy, and by taking us back to our mysterious roots, reminds us what we have lost and still might find. Her Red Bull picks its way through a super-illuminated landscape on spindly but graceful legs, stepping off of a cave wall in Altamira with a message from the primordial past in its placid gaze. It’s a beast in transit through both time and space with an archetypal, resonant color. Jen starts her show’s story with the methodical but graceful progress of art. This story is about how things change and how things stay the same.
Jen Ferguson’s Gryphon takes a particularly long time to get to know. Compared to Red Bull, Gryphon is driven by a constant motion in his fluid form. As the caption to the painting warns, “it seems to know what it is about, has no need for exaggerations”. The “tall tales” the Gryphon outsoars are the simple stories that are not true enough to account for his beauty, the sharpness of his claws, and his ferocity. Traditionally, as a mythological beast, the gryphon combines an ungainly qualities of an eagle and a lion, but in this story, the gryphon’s attributes are harmonious, with sleek blending between beak, limb, and claw. His fiery hues are poised, mid-spring, and he fills the canvas regally. In fact, these two large paintings could well present the contemplative or enduring aspects of art, the mythological basis that Ferguson is building on, and also the vigorous and “unsafe” aspects of art, its claws and indomitable nature. These paintings are storytelling at its best, when there is always more to tell. Good storytellers open worlds up and leave that door open for you.
When looking at Jen’s paintings on display, you quickly realize the tantalizing clues posed by her descriptions really do contribute to the fun. They read like fortune cookies or the “moral of the story” but subvert and contradict the formulas you might be familiar with. Her Small Frog in a Big Pond, bursting with slick, lush verdure, seems to pose a tiny consciousness before a large world, but it is a world aware it is being observed. All of Jen’s painting at BOE give a sense of awareness, whether in the focal point of a central creature, or diffused throughout natural elements. Jen’s use of the natural world along with the mythological has deep resonance. You cannot “watch” one of Jen’s stories without feeling that you, too, are being “watched” and questioned.
From an Elizabethan looking blackbird perched on a slightly munched apple conveying the uneasy sense of being both “on top of the world” and consuming that world, to a wise-eyed monkey playing the fine gentleman with a bottle of luxuriant wine, Jen’s paintings engage with previous cultural associations and redefine and easy or surface “meaning”. A blackbird perched on an apple: he is greedy and has achieved success. The apple is eaten: it won’t last forever. It could rot. He could eat it all. It could roll out from underneath his grasping toes. It’s a choose-your-own adventure or roulette, but any way you look at it, it’s not a “safe” ending. The story is too meaningful for that. Or conversely: we are monkeys, we have our moment, but it doesn’t last. And yet the moment itself is mischievous and subversive.
As you work your way around the room clock-wise, you experience the overlapping stories that make up a strangely connected world of myth and folklore, but rest assured, it is not a story you’ve heard before. Each inhabits its own space and dares you to come a little closer, to explore the logic of its message and skew your perspective long enough for it to tell you something about yourself. As old gents quietly molder over their favorite apertifs, and feral porcines bristle out of the dark, it’s too late to choose a safer story, one where everything goes back to normal at the end. Jen’s largest canvas on display seems to convey a last, defiantly playful challenge: something can be two things at once. Her Lochness Monster, both a submarine and a live thing, coasts between two worlds. Just like stories and just like us. We somehow know that both the predictable and the unpredictable are near neighbors and could change places at any time, no matter how well we think we know the score. The truth that Jen Ferguson so articulately conveys in her extraordinarily inventive questioning of tradition is that uncertainty, whether we like it or not, is a beautiful thing. Her show is ongoing at Brooklyn Oenology and many paintings, as well as prints, are for sale.
Hannah Means-Shannon is a comics scholar and medievalist who has published articles on the works of Alan Moore, Neil Gaiman, and Grant Morrison in the International Journal of Comic Art, Studies in Comics, the Journal of Graphic Novels and Comics, reference books, and upcoming essay collections. She is working on her first book for Sequart Research and Literacy Organization about Neil Gaiman, blogs about Alan Moore for Sequart, and teaches at Georgian Court University in New Jersey.