It Makes My Heart Sing
By Robert Yassin
From the foreword to the book, “Homage to the Creative Spirit”
“It makes my heart sing!”
After more than five decades of involvement in the art world, this simple statement, made by a friend while looking at a splendid Monet painting, brought into bright clarity the way to know the genuine article––a real work of art. The paintings of Jenness Cortez make my heart sing.
It was in a serendipitous, welcome and most rewarding way that I discovered Cortez’ paintings. While doing research for an exhibition on van Gogh, I saw an advertisement for a showing of Cortez’ work at a local gallery in Los Angeles not far from where I was working. The painting in the ad featured van Gogh’s famous Starry Night as if it were hanging in the home of a collector, surrounded by exquisitely painted and carefully selected items such as books and photographs related to the artist. More than just the subject, the whole painting in the ad captivated me. Then I saw the actual painting on a visit to the gallery, along with the other equally extraordinary paintings in the exhibition. I was overwhelmed. My heart did, indeed, sing. This was my first encounter with Cortez’ work; it led me to investigate her history and, ultimately, to contact her. I was delighted to discover that her roots were in Indiana where I, too, had lived and worked for many years. I was equally impressed by the artist as a person, and by her intelligence, an intelligence that has allowed her to orchestrate her extraordinary technical ability into a unique and superb body of work.
It is axiomatic that great art is only made by great minds; the creative ability of average minds is exactly that, average. In today’s post-modern, conceptual world of art, too frequently the title “artist” is given to anyone who makes anything and calls it art. What is worse, even if it only looks new or different, it is frequently seen as “cutting-edge” and therefore important, with little if any justification. After looking at some of the more idiosyncratic and challenging examples of so-called “cutting-edge” art (contemporary critics seem to love the word “challenging” precisely because of its imprecision), Cortez’ work appears much more refreshing and intellectually stimulating. Knowing something about the artist and her history helps to explain why.
Cortez was born in Indiana, a state frequently and incorrectly regarded as conservative and a bit behind the intellectual curve of other supposedly more sophisticated places in our country. I suppose if hard work, honesty and commitment are out of fashion, then perhaps Indiana deserves its reputation. The fact is that Indiana has a long cultural and artistic history and has produced many great artists. Indiana has given us Theodore Dreiser, Booth Tarkington, Kurt Vonnegut, the eponymous Robert Indiana, Cole Porter, James Whitcomb Riley and Hoagy Carmichael––the list is far longer, but these names make the point. And Abraham Lincoln, though born in Illinois, spent his formative years in the Hoosier state. Undoubtedly, where Cortez was born and how she was raised in an encouraging and supportive environment were significant to her artistic development.
Cortez showed a very early talent for art. As a teenager, she took private lessons with Antonius Raemaekers, a well-trained Dutch-born painter and superb teacher who influenced her early decision to make art a career. Cortez chose to study at the Herron School of Art, one of the oldest independent professional schools of art in America. This provided her with a rigorous training in all technical aspects of art making. The goal in teaching at Herron, as was once true for all the independent professional art schools, was to see that students mastered the skills they needed for a career in art, skills that, if the student had a real gift, would be essential to realizing his or her full potential. To add to her store of technical mastery, Cortez took a year off from Herron’s five-year program and went to New York, studying at the Art Students League under yet another gifted teacher, Arnold Blanch, whose influence on the young art student was profound.
Cortez returned to Indianapolis, completed her program at Herron and ultimately settled in upstate New York where she still lives. Because of her great skill and talent, financial and artistic success came quickly, but in a way and with subject matter that her training and life to this point would not have predicted: horses and horseracing. Undoubtedly, the fact that she was living near the famous Saratoga racetrack did influence her choice of this specialty and opened the door for sales, but it was sheer ability and talent that accomplished her success. In the next twenty years Cortez produced a substantial body of work centered on horses—portraits of famous horses, horse owners, scenes from famous races and decorative landscape scenes that included horses. Many of these became commercial products and can still be found for sale on the internet today. Nothing in them, however, prepares us for Cortez’ current body of work.
In 1995, a change in relationship with the New York Racing Association, accompanied by a personal realization of the positive need to take on new artistic challenges, led to the current body of work in homage to great art and artists of the past.
For an artist as well trained and technically competent as Cortez, possessed of a keen and inquiring mind and with a deep knowledge of the history of art and respect for its masters, this was an exhilarating and deeply meaningful new direction. Given the body of work she has created in the past fifteen years, this change might be viewed as the direction her work was, in fact, always intended to move. And what a body of work it is!
All art is a dialogue, a conversation through the medium of the artwork between the artist and the viewer. It is the level of that dialogue that establishes the intrinsic value of a given work. Among the many characteristics of a real work of art, two are most significant and define both the quality and significance of the dialogue. The first is that what the artist is saying must be meaningful; the second, that it is clearly communicated and understood. In Cortez’ paintings, both criteria are more than fully met. The work talks to us at many levels and creates in us a sense of both understanding and well being. This happens because there is nothing arbitrary in Cortez’ paintings. The choice of the painting reproduced, the elements surrounding it, the space the elements occupy, the lighting, the color, everything is carefully selected and orchestrated following a fully articulated plan determined by the artist.
Cortez begins by selecting a famous work. She conducts extensive research leading to other elements—books, photographs, still-life elements—to be added to the whole, each having very specific importance both as fact and as visual element in the composition. The painting is completed only when Cortez is fully satisfied that everything is as it should be. Completion involves making numerous choices, each one either carefully considered or determined by the artist’s highly perfected intuitive sense to be the right one. It is the extraordinary ability to make consistently right choices that is the hallmark of the real talent that sets Cortez’ work apart as something special.
There is more. By her selection of a famous work of art as the focus of a given painting, the viewer is instantly drawn into the picture. This instantaneous seduction is, however, only an artistic convention created by the artist to draw us into the further pleasures of the painting, pleasures greatly enhanced by our discovery of the details that have gone into its creation. As we explore a wonderful interior, we experience the sheer joy of painting for its own sake. Like the Old Masters she admires, Cortez is able to render textures of fabric, surfaces of wood, the tactile quality of a piece of fruit, an aged piece of paper, and so on, with a convincing and tangible realism. In the same way, the famous works reproduced in her compositions are painted with deep respect for their creators and with equal accuracy.
On the simplest basis of technical mastery, these paintings are quite extraordinary, but they go well beyond that. Cortez does what all good artists do—she changes the game. The famous paintings in her paintings, though seductive and familiar, are not the originals. They are frequently not painted to appropriate size or scale. Some are much smaller than the original in the context of the scale of the space they now occupy, and some are much larger. Some are treated as reproductions, a kind of painting within a painting within a painting. While the homage to the selected artist is clear, the works reproduced are used as elements in making pictures, and this is what makes them art, not copies. At the same time, Cortez’ use of famous works makes us see those works in new and different ways by presenting them in carefully realized contemporary interiors rather than on museum walls. This re-contextualizing adds to both the viewer’s understanding and appreciation of these famous works of art.
To enhance the sense of dialogue between artist and viewer, Cortez deliberately leaves real people out of her pictures. Invited by the artist, the viewer becomes the inhabitant of the picture, moving comfortably into the interior space the artist has constructed. Were Cortez to add people to these carefully composed and artfully contrived pictures, their presence would inevitably add arbitrary human emotions to the scenes, limiting their impact. Instead, the paintings become the means for the artist to tell us about herself, her aesthetic interests, about painting in general and how she feels about the world. Through the dialogue provided by the picture, we become participants in a pleasant visit with old friends in a lovely place. And that is more than enough.
Rancho Palos Verdes, California
Robert A. Yassin has had a long career as curator and art museum administrator. Currently C.E.O. of the Palos Verdes Art Center in Rancho Palos Verdes, California, he served as Executive Director of the Indianapolis Museum of Art for fifteen years, and the Tucson, Arizona, Museum of Art for eleven years. He has worked extensively in the fields of American historic and contemporary art.
Editor, The Art Economist