Jenna Meyers

The companion
Painting transcends the sum of its parts for this South African-born artist

Jenna Meyers l Photo: Christie Vuong Jenna Meyers l Photo: Christie Vuong

"I have a deep romance for what I do," says Jenna Meyers. "I've always seen my art like a companion in a relationship."

Meyers, a Painting and Drawing graduate student, has never questioned this relationship. It began shortly after the Meyers family moved from South Africa to Philadelphia, as painting was something the uprooted six-year-old could do alone. Family visits to museums also exposed Meyers to art early on, nurturing a familiarity with such masters as Cézanne, Matisse and Picasso.

Meyers' own skill at painting soon became apparent. "I had a teacher in elementary school who insisted I take art," they* say of the support and encouragement received early on, although they didn't begin formal courses until Grade 6. Meyers has since pursued it relentlessly - at just 23, they're entering the third year of the MFA in Studio Arts program.

The determination to persevere with art as a vocation was cemented when Meyers was 15. That's when their mother spent several months in hospital after being diagnosed with multiple sclerosis and counselled her children to "do what they were supposed to do before they couldn't."

Painting also comforted Meyers through some turbulent teen years, during which they became politically active. They went almost every weekend after art class to the Philadelphia Museum of Art to look at Jackson Pollock's Male and Female : "It fascinated me and pacified me. There was something about that painting..."

Jump ahead a few years to college, when Meyers came out as gay. This changed what work they wanted to look at: Pollack and Edvard Munch gave way to artists such as Lisa Yuskavage and Cecily Brown. "I was tired of hearing, 'Women don't paint' and 'Women don't do this and women don't do that, bla bla bla.' I wanted to know what women painted, and why, and what was important during a certain time period."

Freedom for expression

Meyers now wants to know how other artists define the queer aesthetic. It's a question they put to the artists they profile as a contributor to Revel and Riot, an organization that promotes LGBTQ rights. "I want to know: is there a collective direction of the community I'm in? Is there a theme?"

What about a theme in their own work? The answer could be said to be hanging on their studio walls: canvases of bold colours and strokes, depicting scenes of the everyday - sort of. Meyers puts it in words: "There is a sexuality, but to me it's more about being, and existence, and a sense of freedom. Freedom is really important to me. What I try to reflect is my own idea of the queer aesthetic, or the queer value of freedom, and the interchangeability with the body."

The resulting, expressionist-like paintings rub some the wrong way.

Jenna Meyers, Lunch, 2012. Courtesy Jenna Meyers. Click to enlarge. Jenna Meyers, Lunch, 2012. Courtesy Jenna Meyers. Click to enlarge.

"People have accused the bodies I paint of being grotesque, but to me they're humorous, cartoon-like figures that are built for situation they're in, and do what they need to do," says Meyers, who also strives to paint the shame out of the body.

For an example, they point out that eating is as natural as having sex is as natural as using the bathroom - so in a piece like The Lunch they portray all three in one narrative, no doubt breaking down walls that many in society believe stand between each. 

Meyers, who earned a BFA from Temple University's Tyler School of Art in Philadelphia, discovered that many of the walls they were used to as a member of the LGBTQ community are either shorter or don't exist in Montreal; they've been able to breathe while creating here.

The future may be uncertain but Meyers does know one thing: there will always be art, faithful companion to the end.

*Meyers identifies with the 'they' singular pronoun



Jenna Meyers has a solo exhibition, Queer Love Action, at Rats 9 from Nov. 9 to 24, 2012, and will be undertaking a residency at the Vermont Studio Center in February 2013.

Story by Liz Crompton. Posted on October 15, 2012

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