“Two days ago, Philip Guston was in my dream,” Lavaughan Jenkins says, sitting in his studio surrounded by hollow-eyed figures and faceless paintings. What at first looks like sculpture are Jenkins' three-dimensional paintings, in various states of completion: thick, multicolored brush strokes smeared and built up to form an army of men that vaguely resemble the artist. They seem to be watching, listening intently to his words. “He said: ‘The first duty of an artist is to be free.’ That’s what I remembered from the dream. The more I thought about it, it went back to the borders. So I eliminated them. There would be no edges, there’s no side that tells you to stop.”
Despite his recent departure from the two-dimensional realm, Lavaughan Jenkins considers himself to be a painter, through and through. This is not something he foresaw or pursued growing up, but rather an inevitability revealed to him in his early twenties, while he was pursuing a Bachelor’s degree in literature. A professor recommended him for MassArt’s BFA program, where he was accepted without even applying. From then, Jenkins cultivated a long relationship with painting—one that he challenges and redefines with each piece.
Painting in the Third Dimension
Ubiquitous in all of Jenkins' work is the generous application of paint, with texture that charts every path his brush takes along the canvas. The thicker he painted, the more fascinated he became with how three-dimensionally he could build his paintings. Knowing that a transition was imminent, he spent several weeks studying in a ceramics studio, working with clay and testing how painterly gestures and mark-making would translate to the three dimensional realm. He then applied those techniques to oil paint—lots of it.
Jenkins begins each piece with a skeleton of wire and molding paste, and then applies four or five dense layers of oil paint to flesh them out. He employs techniques of Hudson River School painters and Jackson Pollock, focusing on light and color, mapping a journey for the eye takes across the surface. He takes emphasis away from the form, and uses traditional methods like glazing to build layer after layer of dense, vibrant brush strokes.
When Jenkins moved from making busts to standing figures, he was able to expand his technique. He could extend and modify each stroke, preserving a balance in mark-making that traditional paintings carry. He distorts the figures using paint, playing with light and value to create the optical illusions of two-dimensional paintings.
The consequence of working with such a magnitude of oil paint is in its pacing—each piece takes so long to dry between layers, it is impossible to work on one continuously. Thus, Jenkins works on multiple pieces simultaneously, sometimes he making several variations of the same figure, exploring the different directions each choice in his process takes him.
One of the most striking aspects of Jenkins’ portraits and figures are their large, cartoonish eyes. In work that is all about observation and remembrance, they are the most essential feature.
These images trace back to Goya and Guston. Jenkins feels particularly drawn to the crowds and onlookers of Goya’s black paintings, observing the spectacle at the forefront of each scene. Their dark, vacuous eyes reflect the grim emotional content of the work. For Jenkins, the true grotesqueness of “Saturn Devouring His Son” is not in gory image of the child’s torn body, but in Saturn’s savage eyes. Jenkins feels the same intensity in Guston’s hooded characters with slits for eyes. This simple image speaks volumes about the turmoil Guston witnessed in the South and California during his lifetime, and reminds Jenkins of the emotional weight a single stroke can have.
In 2014, Jenkins read Man Walks into a Room, award-winning author Nicole Krauss’s first novel. He was drawn particularly to “memory doctor” characters in Man Walks into a Room: they observe others’ memories and retell them so they wouldn’t be forgotten. Jenkins sees his work as a form of retelling his past experiences. He is drawn to the idea of wanting to recover things lost, a driving force for the protagonist of Krauss’ novel.
Combining his literary inspiration with his artistic influences, Jenkins paints, in the peripheries of every recent painting, self-portraits with round, empty eyes set in expressive faces. Invoking theater and Romantic landscapes, they sit in the foreground of each piece, giving the image a sense of depth as well as a stage. They are the narrators, the storytellers, the “memory doctors” observing and reacting to his recollections as people from his life play parts in his work.
What they all have in common is a bundle of white at their midriffs, swallowing their forearms. Jenkins identifies these as the A-shirts that were worn like a uniform in his hometown in Florida. It acts as a historical reminder of where he is from, a piece of his past that remains in his present and will follow him into the future. They are an important aspect of his identity, and therefore integral to the identities of these figures that observe and analyze his memories.
The Perfect Model
Jenkins plans to continue these three-dimensional paintings for some time, but has not abandoned the second dimension altogether. When he does return to paper and canvas, he will do so with more insight into his medium, informed by his explorations in the third dimension. For his next project, he intends to pose these figures and paint them in the second dimension.
“I have the perfect model now,” Jenkins says, surveying the assembly of three-dimensional paintings awaiting instruction. “They have a whole life of their own now.”
The figures gaze back in silent agreement.
Wednesday, July 5, 2017: Puloma Ghosh