JEN HITCHINGS is a painter, independent curator, and community organizer in the arts. She received her BFA in Painting and Drawing from SUNY Purchase in 2011. She began curating exhibitions in Bushwick, Brooklyn in 2011 and founded WEEKNIGHTS gallery in her studio at The Active Space in July of 2012. WEEKNIGHTS transitioned into Associated in March of 2013, when Theresa Daddezio, Julian Jimarez-Howard (also of OUTLET Fine Art) and Hitchings joined forces as a curatorial team. She currently works for Pierogi gallery in Williamsburg and has volunteered for organizations such as the Williamsburg Galleries Association, Independent Curators International and Arts in Bushwick.
My work investigates the significance of communication, camaraderie, perception, and memory in the modern day – all subjects largely influenced by technological advances in the social sphere of the 21st century. I use personal photographs, the internet, and classical paintings of social interactions and celebrations such as birthday parties, family vacations, drug-induced raves, and art openings, as source material to study psychological states and the significance of group gatherings. Tainted and lubricated by alcohol, drugs, false hopes and desires, the characters that frequent my paintings are ones we all know, hate, and love. Some revel in suburban banality surrounded by shot glasses and empty whisky bottles, some embrace one another, some engage in games; all co-exist in an environment that is visually sculpted – with color and form – to mimic the conscious states and emotional impulses present. Hand gestures, body language, and verbal language all coalesce to depict the psychedelic, at times dystopic, compositions, which nod to photography in their candid snap-shot quality. I’m interested in the inherent truth accredited to photography given its ability to turn a moment timeless, despite its utter failure in depicting truthful relationships between one person and the next. The inevitable mistakes and surprises which we must grapple with in our mortal existence take form in my work through the paint itself, which I allow to make its own decisions by pouring and splattering in sporadic motions but then control with illustrative mark-making. This act of taming chaos on the surface serves as a metaphor to how I, and many others, exist socially within the world, and my subjects serve to question the mortality and morality that we are forced to manage as conscious beings.
You are involved in the art world in so many different ways! From working at a well-known Gallery (Pierogi) in Williamsburg, to being part of a team that started an independent gallery in Brooklyn (Associated) to being a working artist, to volunteering your time in the art world you really have a lot going on! Do you find that each of these unique roles inform each other? Is there one perspective that you prefer over the others or do you find that switching from one to the others provides positive distance and context?
All of the roles I serve feed into one another, it feels like a constant feedback loop to me. I’ve met artists through my job at Pierogi that I’ve shown at Associated, I’ve encouraged artists that I’ve met through Associated to participate in Pierogi’s flat file program, I’ve been able to ask gallerists to come to my studio and shows because I’ve become close to them through my jobs as an art administrator rather than an artist… it’s all cyclical to me. I think that’s part of why many artists start galleries. You already know a lot of artists and are part of that dialogue, so that makes getting started much easier. I think I enjoy all of the roles pretty equally; I can’t imagine ever not making artwork, and I can’t imagine working a non-art-related day job. Everyone in the Brooklyn art world supports one another so whole-heartedly, it feels like one big family, no matter what role you serve.
You obviously stay very busy! How do you make time to make work? Can you talk about the importance of your studio practice? How do you stay motivated?
I think because of how fluidly my job at Pierogi and my art practice co-exist, it’s not quite as difficult time-wise as it may seem. My studio is also in the same building as Pierogi, so it’s very easy for me to get in painting time almost every day, even if it’s just for an hour or so. The hard thing I find is that I can’t make good work if I’m not inspired and motivated by what feels like a forward progression in my imagery and process. Painting is a very intuitive but also serendipitous activity for me. I can’t force it. But I think being surrounded by incredibly inspiring artists at Pierogi, in the Bushwick art community, and the NY art world at large, helps keep me motivated.
Your paintings begin via snapshot photographs of (correct me if I am wrong!) your friends and family. How did you become interested in this as a starting point? What does the original composition bring to the final work?
About 80% of my work is based on photographs of friends and family. This began when my father passed away when I was 20, and my then-step-mom would periodically give me tons of his photographs. Many I had already seen but there were a lot from his youth, and I felt a drive to paint them in an attempt to understand his life more thoroughly; to live vicariously through him. This eventually evolved into me using current photographs of my friends in situations that I was present for, and it became much more an investigation of what photography signifies and it’s purpose, and how “true” photographs really are. Yes, they always depict what actually, physically happened at a time, but they entirely omit the emotions, desires, thoughts, etc. that are going on between the figures present. So, I paint the physical composition, but I really aim to paint what is invisible. People take photographs of celebrations, of achievements, things to be proud of… not of the divorce court, foreclosure papers, or funerals. I’m interested in that, in our pride and desire to celebrate achievements, and this of course translates to social media, now that we have the ability to control the way we are perceived by the public in such a monumental and potentially untruthful way on the internet, which feeds so greatly into our actual social lives.
Your paintings are beautifully developed and full of lots of color, texture and tactile elements, though they are still primarily 2-dimensional—a sort of controlled messiness of abstraction through process—can you talk about the methods you employ while working?
Why, thank you! I feel like my process is a play between control and haphazardness. I let paint do what it does, I act very intuitively without thinking some actions through, and then I fine-tune and clean up parts, and leave others to show the mistakes. I see this as a metaphor for human existence, particularly my own. Generally, I start off entirely abstract, and work towards setting a color-palette to run with. Then I form bits of the composition with negative space. Then I work between positive and negative (the positive often being the figures’ hair, clothing, posture, gestures, and objects like tables, cups, chairs, etc.) and find new connections to make visually between parts. Some newer works are strictly text-based, and those feel more like blips of thoughts that are emblematic of my main concerns in painting, such as low-brow, youth culture.
What is the importance of color in your work? Even though you incorporate an array of colors, your work has the feeling of darkness and sorrow? Is this intentional and what does this element mean to you?
Color is very important to me. I feel like some paintings are ‘day’ paintings, some are ‘night’ paintings, some are warm, some are cool. I’m also really interested in color theory, and the associations that humans make when looking at certain colors. I basically hope to evoke an odd, off-putting sense of both beauty and sorrow in each piece. The image usually depicts an exciting moment between friends, but there are messy drips and spilled drinks and electrified circuits connecting them. I want them to exist somewhere that is not easily definable, because I feel there is so much uncertainty in life, and in art-making.
Does drawing play a part in your process? Do you find that you work more directly from the photos or from drawings of the photos?
I think my love for and deep connection to drawing is a huge factor in my work, and sometimes a hindrance. I have a hard time staying simple on a large scale or leaning towards abstraction, as I always have the impulse to create identifiable objects in the piece. I can’t work large, and I think that’s because I’ve spent thousands of hours in my life drawing realistic images on 8.5 x 11” sheets of paper. Until I was 17, I thought art was nothing more than creating realistic pictures on paper. In order to remove myself a bit more from the original, photographic source, I do draw the composition first, very simply, to remove the color and form some preliminary connections in the piece that will translate into the painting. But it changes a lot between the photograph, the drawing, and then the painting.
There seem to be some recurring themes involving youth culture appearing in your paintings—can you describe your perspective as it pertains to this culture and your experience as a teenager and young adult? What about this part of our lives do you find the most interesting?
My initial interest in youth-culture, specifically that in the suburbs, comes from my upbringing. As a toddler, my parents had wild parties in our home in New Jersey. Like, 90 people in our house and small back yard surrounded by other yards, with M-80 fireworks exploding above our shed. I remember a few of these very vividly, the cops showing up, a monster truck parked in the front yard, strangers sleeping on the couch, etc. Eventually when I moved to Brooklyn and was suddenly immersed in a very party-central neighborhood of young twenty-somethings engaging in totally irresponsible and debaucherous acts, I made the connection to my parents’ wild-side. I see that lifestyle as an attempt to avoid, ignore, and deter adulthood and responsibility, and I find that interesting. I think it’s not unlike religion and phenomenons such as the salem witch trials - reality, and the banality of our existence, is just too harsh to accept, it’s too simple, so we find vices and external forces and beliefs to hold responsible for our actions and the state of the world that we live in. I’m fascinated by psychology and sociology. I’m also obsessed with experience. I’ve always had a very Kantian view of morality. I think this all feeds into my work subconsciously.
What are some of your most useful resources or places where you look to stay informed and engaged in the art world?
I know I could be much, much better at researching influential art historical moments and movements… and going to museums more frequently… I feel guilty about my lack of participation in that realm, but I do read a lot of current art criticism and I see gallery shows very often. Given that I work in the art market, I get to see trends as they develop, especially at the major NY art fairs. Not that I necessarily want to participate as an artist in any of the trends within the market… but I think it’s important to know what’s going on and your place as an artist within that context.
What do you listen to while you work? Any interesting podcasts we should check out? I know you are a fan of Radiolab and you totally got me hooked on it!
I LOVE Radiolab, and there’s a new podcast called Invisibilia which was started by some co-producers of Radiolab. It investigates all things invisible, which can be applied to many subjects. So, of course I’m interested in it! I go through phases with music though, depending on the season. In the past I’ve made some really good work while listening to very repetitive, dark, droney music such as Jefre Cantu-Ledesma, A Winged Victory for the Sullen, Noveller, and The Caretaker.
If you were locked in a cave for eternity what 5 albums would you bring with you?
Ha! Well I suppose I should choose some upbeat tunes if I’m in a dark cave, right? Melted by Ty Segall, anything by Roy Orbison, MBV by My Bloody Valentine… some mix of doo-wop, and a mix of classical along the lines of Satie and Debussy. That was sort of a cop-out but I recently got a new computer and only about 10% of my music made it on to here thus far, so I’m blanking! I also often use Pandora now that it’s so hard to torrent music…
What is the importance of living in an art-centric city such as New York? Do you find that it has helped your career as an artist? What is it like to be a part of such a thriving arts community, with lots of other emerging artists living and working in such close proximity?
I think about the big fish in a small pond theory a lot, and I’ve seen it happen to some colleagues of mine that didn’t move to NY right after school. But, I think the community here is massive, and Brooklyn has for so long been the breeding pool for DIY artist movements, where anyone can become involved if they want to. Some people think it’s too competitive and they find it discouraging, but I think that’s a bad attitude. Just yesterday there was an opening of an exhibition called Making History which included works of 385 artists who donated a piece each which will be raffled off at the end of the show, and it’s a benefit for programming an annual open studio event in Bushwick this summer. The show was absolutely packed even on a Sunday when the major train line in Brooklyn wasn’t running. I find this community so inspiring. I can’t see myself anywhere else at this point, despite how incredibly hard it is to live here, realistically. But the energy and opportunities prove it to be worth it, in my opinion. I met Jerry Saltz and Roberta Smith, two of the most influential art critics world-wide at the moment (say what you will about Jerry, but he is inarguably influential), in the tiny 200 square foot gallery I was co-directing at age 24 on a Sunday while painting in my studio next-door; I never expected that would happen.
Is there anything that might not be considered distinctly “art related” that you feel brings an important element to you work?
I think all of our interests in our lives, be it cooking, jogging, math, science, literature, etc. impact the way we make art. It can be really hard to decipher what influences what. I think the solitude and social ineptitude that I experienced and exhibited as a child greatly impact why I make work about social relationships. I think the hard-working, blue-collar ethics in my heritage drive me to feel like I have to always be productive, literally every waking moment.
Thank you so much for taking the time to share your work!
Find out more about Jen on her website!