The two threads that unite all of the richly evocative paintings of Jenness Cortez are exactly what has nourished many of the greatest painters over the centuries. The first of these is the act of idealizing the subject. This is an important strategy, a life view as much as a painter’s device, something often abandoned in the throes of Bohemian and avant-garde Modernism. Cortez identifies a transcendent perfection not only in her earlier landscapes and still lifes — subjects which lend themselves to the ideal — but to the common Old European storefronts seen in her latest work. The paintings glory in a fineness of light, of silence, of timeless nostalgia. They therefore lift a viewer to a more ethereal view of a life, rarefied by the privilege of reflection.
The paintings are by nature descriptive, and the subject then is foremost. But the subject, as such, may not actually be a viewer’s first impression.
The second thread in Cortez’s work, in fact, is so visceral, so immediate, it is felt by the eye even before the brain quite knows what it is looking at. And that thread is the art of painting itself. The stability of line, the saturation of color, and the deliberation of technique all help define the surface in very physical, painterly terms. Even the hard board preferred by the artist helps give the paintings a planar clarity that continually pulls an interested gaze thoroughly around the implied space, the detailed surfaces.
It might be said that Cortez is reveling in the age old aesthetic trick of illusion. She makes the flatness of these facades more flat, and the depth into interiors or through portals more apparently deep. She also creates an illusion of place itself, for none of these scenes quite exist as depicted. Even if an address might be found on a real street in the south of France, the facts wouldn’t match those in the painting. Cortez’s shutters and signs, displays of vegetables and reflections in windows, awnings and even the light itself, are all amalgams of a broad archetype made out of the intimate villages as seen in photographs, which were her initial inspiration.
To be disappointed that these scenes do not exist is like being disappointed that heaven is not quite the way the Old Masters imagined it. In a more earthly way, the architecture and skies of Canaletto surely make the very most of Venice, and the timelessness of the seemingly realistic allegories of 19th Century Britain depend on their ethereal aura.
In a more contemporary sense, there are echoes of the flattened trompe l’oeil still life arrangements of the American John Peto, and the rectilinear architectures in photographs by Walker Evans. One can certainly sense, as well, an adaptation of Richard Estes, an acknowledged influence, as well as many other artists who have chronicled, with a quasi-photographic factuality, ordinary places.
Of course, Cortez is not interested in ordinary places. Her views, with their many sources, are drawn from a kind of collective memory. The artist arranges her idyllic notions like flowers in a bouquet, compounding individual beauty for an overall effect. The paintings are impersonal but they are far from cold. They are irrepressibly inviting, reminding us of the visits we have all made to such places, or of photographs we have seen, which make our minds wander.
We feel in such small scenes, in all their becoming familiarity, a wishful dream of life at its best, unencumbered, beautiful, and oh so precious.
State University of New York
Department of Fine Arts, Albany, New York
Mr. Jaeger is a regular contributor to “Art New England”