Portland artist Jesse Narens is most at home in nature. Artworks with tree motifs, raindrops and layers of mark making reflect the forests and coastlines of the Pacific Northwest. Collected and followed by a global audience, Narens’ work is both lucid and magical, with creatures that seem to emerge, disappear and re-emerge from an ethereal plane. What draws one to the artist’s work is an individual preference, but there is no denying an ineffable quality of being transported to another world – sometimes primal, sometimes whimsical – vaguely familiar, if not altogether forgotten.
It is easy to make comparisons to visionary art when one looks at the works of Narens, although the artist would eschew any hierarchy – spiritual or otherwise – between the artist and other living beings. In the creative process, Narens becomes one with both subject and object and returns both artist and audience to their wild essence of being. Narens’ work embodies a transitory moment that is the quintessence of life, death, and art.
TTDOG met with Jesse Narens earlier this year and began a dialogue with the artist in advance of their upcoming show Asleep in A Field, opening Friday 4 August in Portland. Narens describes the artist’s career to date.
I started painting at the end of 2010 after my friend and artist Jesse Reno suggested trying out some alternative techniques. Prior to that I had never painted before. I focused on ceramics in high school, and dropped out of art college in less than a semester because I felt like they were creating artists, not letting people just be artists. I have always done something creative with my time.
I do whatever I feel like doing, creatively, at any given time. Painting and music are my go-tos , but every so often I get the urge to try something else.
Collaboration and a sense of community with other artists has always been important to Narens. As a teenager, the artist created showcases for their own and other artists’ works.
The shows I was hosting when I was 15-20 were one night music and art shows at different venues around the Chicagoland area, made up of people from the midwest that I found online, back when Myspace was popular. I showed my own work and played music at those events.
I’ve always enjoyed sharing the things I like with friends, so when I started playing music and making art it just made sense to try and be an event organizer or curator of some sort.
Collaboration extends as well to the audience where meaning-making becomes an adventure between artist, subject, object and audience.
My paintings, titles and music never really have specific meanings. I am trying to create a feeling. The feeling I get when I am in the woods or on the coast in the Pacific Northwest. Where people see bear and wolves, I just see a generic animal form, usually.
Sometimes I choose words just for the way they sound or to further push the atmosphere in the painting. It’s also important that all of the elements (music, words, painting, etc) are taken in together at the same time to get the full experience of my art.
Observing Narens’ recent body of work, one gets a sense of both forthrightness and mystery that allows the artist to give birth to and express the unutterable. Whether seemingly benign or ferocious, the creatures in Narens’ works seem to belong to a world that adults, living in contemporary society, are no longer able to see, let alone access and engage. Returning to a clarity and confusion akin to that of childhood, Narens leads us back to our own natural connection to the wild that we have distanced ourselves from, over time. To do this, Narens draws upon motifs of the natural world.
Looking back on pieces I can remember making in high school, most of them were tree related; people with branch arms, bark texture on my ceramic pieces…I grew up in the suburbs of Chicago, and I don’t remember experiencing much nature before the age of 20 when I moved to the Pacific Northwest. The few experiences I did have before then were all very memorable, and while I might not have thought about it then, I recognize now that the feelings I have now when I am out in nature have always been the same. It’s the only place where I feel I can just be. It’s the only place that feels correct to me. When I go back home I tend to spend a lot of time worrying about things that shouldn’t matter, but we have made them matter. I paint the places and things that make me feel good.
I find my greatest joy in nature.
As an intuitive artist, Narens’ artistic process mirrors the cycles of the natural world. The artist composes and decomposes each piece over and over again. Each layer, rather than adding armour and complexity, seems to strip away artifice and repression and restores freedom of vision. There is no attempt to obscure what has come before and the history of mark making, evident in the pieces, is like a treasure map the artist has left behind, to lead the audience to a sense of uninhibited being.
I don’t have the final piece in mind before it’s done. I just start painting, whether or not I have an idea, and the piece evolves as my mind processes what I’m seeing and thinking about at that time. Pieces get to a point where they definitely look like they could be called finished, but something just doesn’t feel right to me. I’ll paint over “finished” pieces again and again until they are done. Even pieces that are done might someday become unfinished again. If I have to sit with them for a long time, at some point, my mind might be in a different place than it was when a particular piece was finished, and I will no longer feel connected to it, so I paint over it. When I sit down and examine why I do certain things, I feel like working this way is a lesson in letting go and embracing change.
I get stuck at some point in almost every piece. Usually when they get to a finished looking point, but I don’t like it. To move forward, I usually have to paint over the parts I like the most. It frees up the piece to become something drastically different at that point. It’s not always the easiest thing to do, but it’s almost always the answer.
Narens does not create artworks for archival purposes, and believes that decomposition is as valid as composition in the making of art. For Narens, an artwork has a life that continues beyond the moment when the artist and the subject have transmuted the mystery of creation into form. What happens beyond that moment is a part of the life cycle of the art and Narens delights in seeing, for instance, works weathered in nature or by time. An ecosystem of its own, Narens’ art is in a constant state of flux and adaptation.
I don’t like making products for the sake of having things to buy. Sometimes I draw something and want it on a shirt for myself, so I get maybe 20 shirts made. When I do make something like a shirt or a book, I only make a small number to keep the items special to whoever ends up getting one. I try to make things on my own, or work with friends so I can keep the prices as low as possible.
Narens work is primarily self expression, yet the artist aims to allow their artwork to be a catalyst for a return to the wild. Using social media, Narens showcases the natural world through the artist’s own adventures as much as showcasing their artworks, encouraging followers to get outdoors. On occasion, Narens has left free artworks at natural sites as incentive. Having experienced nature, followers may be encouraged to protect the wilds. Yet, in the face of our society’s failure to protect ecosystems and natural preserves and our failure to act to avert the catastrophic impacts of climate change, Narens accepts the limits and responsibilities of one’s own place in the lifecycle of this living planet.
I’m alive, so I’ll live the best life I can, but I don’t have much hope for humans.
The earth will fix itself when we are gone, if we can’t learn to live with it.
Even though I feel this way, that doesn’t mean I’ve given up. I’ll continue to try and inspire people to care about the planet, and to share and support the work of people who I think are doing a better job than I am, like E.O. Wilson Biodiversity Foundation and Archangel Ancient Tree Archive.
While humankind may provide no solace for Narens, it is to the pockets of community, cultivated by the artist throughout life, that Narens turns.
I am currently going through a big transition in my life, so at the moment I am most grateful for the friends in my life that have been around since I was young.
Like an old friend, Narens has returned to the artists’ roots, performing live music with art at the upcoming exhibition, Asleep in A Field. For many of Narens’ fans, this will be the first opportunity to experience the artist’s music (performed under the name Ghost&Flower) with Narens’ artworks.
The last time I played music live was in 2011 and the last time I played music where my art was on display was probably 2008.
As with my visual art, my music is for me. And with music, I am again chasing a feeling that I don’t get from anything else, and I can’t express it in words, but when I am making music I very quickly go somewhere else in my head. I’ve recorded very little over the last 12 years of playing music live. I make music the same way I paint. It’s improvised, and I build layers through loops. I use a prepared guitar instead of electronic instruments, and build most of my rhythmic parts with a contact mic to play the room. Recording, even live, takes me out of the headspace that I am doing music for, so it’s no fun for me.
I went to a Bang On A Can marathon show when I was around 18 that had a big impact on my music. The show was something like 12 hours of non stop experimental music, but at the beginning they encouraged you to come and go as you wanted because doing so meant that each person would have their own unique experience with what they heard.
I’ve played so many great shows that I wish I had recordings of, but I know they would have gone different if it was being recorded. I like knowing that everyone who has seen me play had a unique experience that no one else will ever know.
Asleep In A Field opens Friday, August 4th in Portland and runs through Tuesday, September 5th at True Measure Gallery. Jesse Narens will play live music under the name Ghost&Flower on opening night, at sunset. For those interested in purchasing artworks but who cannot attend the exhibition, contact Jesse Narens (Jesse@Jessenarens.com) or True Measure Gallery.
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