American Realist Jenness Cortez Puts Art Where It Belongs

One of the ongoing goals for this blog is to try to encourage my readers not to be afraid of art, but rather to learn about it, because it is a reflection of our history and civilization.    For many people the term “art”, when used in the sense of paintings, sculpture, prints, and so on,  actually denotes two very different things.  We might define the first as art with a capital “A”, meaning the sorts of things one sees in museums and galleries, and the second as art with a lowercase “a”, meaning things one picks up at the local home furnishings emporium or department store to hang over the sofa.  The former is considered to be something intimidating and out of reach – or in the case of much contemporary art, utterly incomprehensible – to the average person, while the latter is often chosen not for merit, but because it matches the carpet or the upholstery.

So it may please you to learn of a very interesting contemporary artist, Jenness Cortez, whose 9th solo exhibition has just opened in Naples, Florida.  Cortez’ new show, “Homage to the Creative Spirit 2012”, features her paintings of imagined present-day interior spaces, where famous works of art are part of the scene.  As Cortez herself explains, she wants to celebrate the creativity that goes into the creation of art:

Every painting begins with a vision seen in the artist’s mind. Sometimes the finished piece appears in the mind full-blown, and at other times it is amorphous–yet with some beguiling character that begs to be developed. In either case, between that first inspiration and the finished painting lie hours of research, thousands of choices and, of course, the great joy of painting. The process is organic. Even with a well conceived composition in place, the painting has a life of its own and the best ones surprise even the artist with twists and turns that outshine the most clever of plans. It’s as if the creative spirit insinuates itself into the work, wanting to serve its own best interest with solutions that far exceed the artist’s original, limited vision.

Cortez’ work also hearkens back to a long-standing tradition in Western art, where painters would produce views of the interiors of homes or museums displaying the art collections contained therein. Among my favorite examples of this particular type of painting is a group portrait by Zoffany entitled “The Tribuna of the Uffizi” from 1772-1778, now in Windsor Castle, which shows a group of well-known art connoisseurs of the day enjoying some of the wonderful works of art in the collection of the Uffizi Gallery in Florence. One can identify not only many of the people shown in the painting, but also the paintings and sculptures they are discussing as they pose for their portraits.

One can also appreciate the fact that Cortez will often make clever allusions to art history in her paintings. These bring a smile to those who immediately “get” what she is referencing, and encourage those who do not immediately see the point of the juxtaposition to do a bit of homework. It is as if she is encouraging the viewer to learn more about the wonderful world of art history, in a way far more effective than mere words such as mine could possibly hope to do. And nowhere is this desire more evident, I believe, than in her still life paintings.

Take for example Cortez’ still life entitled “Vermeer’s Amaryllis”, which is painted on a mahogany panel, rather than canvas. The painting hanging on the wall is the great Dutch Old Master Jan Vermeer’s “Lady With A Balance” of about 1664, now in the National Gallery of Art here in Washington. In the original Vermeer which Cortez has reproduced, in part, the lady in question is shown in a room where a painting of the “Last Judgment” is displayed. In a parallel to that painting, where the good and the bad of each soul is being weighed in a metaphorical balance, Vermeer has his subject engaged in weighing items in a literal balance.

In the foreground of Cortez’ work, we see several objects on a table, which itself is covered by an oriental rug. Those familiar with Vermeer’s work know that he often did this as well, in his own painting. In fact, the same Turkish carpet often appears on the floor or draped over furniture in many of his portrait-interior works.

On the right in the Cortez painting, we see a grouping of ripe fruit, making reference to the great Dutch still life paintings of fruit and flowers that were produced during the 17th century, i.e. the same time period that Vermeer himself was working. On the left, we see an Amaryllis bulb bursting into flower, and which is, in fact, the pink “Vermeer” cultivar for this type of lily, botanically speaking. The bulbs are growing in a wonderfully observed and technically very difficult to represent combination of materials. Cortez paints a hand-thrown, shallow pot made of terracotta, of the type normally used for growing bulbs, which we can see is hosting some green mold or moss growing on the bottom. The humble pot sits in a perfect, gleaming copper dish or tray, which reflects the carpet on which it sits, and serves to prevent both the carpet and the tabletop from getting wet when the plant needs to be watered.

On a personal level I feel Cortez’ work draws attention to the fact that works of art ought to be part of our lives, not simply objects to be studied as if they were historic artifacts or scientific specimens. For Catholics such as myself, for example, visiting a museum or a gallery where works of art originally commissioned for churches or for private prayer are on display is always something of a mixed bag, emotionally speaking. We are glad that such things are preserved for future generations to admire, but at the same time a bit saddened by the fact that they are not being used for their original, intended purpose.

Jenness Cortez invites us to consider that great art is something we can enjoy around us all the time, as we sprawl on the couch reading the newspaper, or as we get the dog ready to go out for a walk. It is not something we ought to be afraid of, but rather a connection to our history and culture which we ought to celebrate. I hope she continues to use her considerable talents to not only draw admirers to her own work, but also encourage people to really get to love and appreciate the history of Western art in the same way which she herself clearly does.

The artist at work in her Upstate New York studio

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