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“Introverted Excavator”: An Interview with Jennifer Nalbantyan

In light of her solo exhibition at Chicago Art Department, I asked Atlanta-turned-Chicago artist Jennifer Nalbantyan about how the relocation to Chicago has influenced her practice, how dreams and memory have served as inspiration for her latest work and more.

Tempestt Hazel: In the first image I saw of you on your website you were screen printing in pearls.  Are you always so well-decorated when you create work?

Jennifer Nalbantyan: [Laughs] Well, first of all, those are fearls—fake pearls—and that picture was taken at Chicago Art Department’s fundraiser last year. I was doing a demo of screen printing. But now that you say that, I feel inspired to live up to such a reputation.

TH: As an import from Atlanta, how has your art changed or been influenced since you’ve moved to Chicago?

JN: My work took a definite turn when I moved to Chicago. Not necessarily specific to the city itself, but because of going through that transition.  Practically speaking, when I moved here, I didn’t have as much space to spread out with materials, and at the time, I hadn’t yet joined the Chicago Art Department (CAD). I had been used to stretching some really large canvases in my old apartment in Atlanta and I had a separate room that I would work in with oils and all the fumes that go with it.

All of that wasn’t very practical in the apartment here, so it sort of organically brought about somewhat of a change in my materials and the way I was interacting them.  I started laying unstretched canvases on the floor and began to do a mixture of drawing and painting with india inks, which I really took to.  India ink is of course a much lighter medium to use than oils and it allowed me to bring out a more whimsical, humorous side in my art, which lent a good balance to some of the ideas I was thinking about, such as the role of imagination in shaping memories.

Chicago Art Department Logo. (Image courtesy of Chicago Art Department.)

TH: You are currently an artist resident at Chicago Art Department.  How did you land there and what has that experience been like for your creative development?

JN: CAD really came about because I was trying to hustle.  One of the things that I sort of vowed to do if I came to Chicago was to find a community of artists and push myself to not complacently work in total isolation.  It’s different for an artist who is basically self-taught and whose art practice has always been a really individualistic thing.  But since I didn’t want to go to art school, I had to search around for opportunities to be involved with other artists without being in school and that didn’t require already being in known circles.  So, I just did a lot of research—at the time I was living on the north side—and I found out about Pilsen and the Chicago Art Department. I reached out to the founders and started a conversation.  They are a very open group and so I was fortunate that it wasn’t terribly formal and I was able to sit face to face and explain why I was interested and what I saw myself doing.  That is a pretty rare thing, I think, so I’m fortunate that I found CAD and it worked out.

The biggest thing that has changed for me since being with CAD is my perspective.  It wasn’t even that anything monumental happened in terms of the way I went about my art practice, but that I started seeing myself and my work differently.  I felt less like an imposter in the art world and I was able to allow myself to think of my work as a cohesive series that might one day be viewed by others.  So, I started thinking more in terms of a body of work and the ideas that I wanted to convey.  And ultimately, this is what has built up to me having an exhibition, which is the most exciting part because I will get to see how the public engages with it and be able to learn from that experience.

TH: What bodies of work have you created in your career that you would consider stepping stones on the path to the place you are at right now?

JN:  think that everything I’ve done has led up to the current place I’m at. Since I’ve been independently pursuing my art interests for many years, I consider each piece I’ve made a progression towards what I’m currently doing, from learning how to paint with acrylics, and later, oils, to learning how to construct canvases—it all seems very basic and yet each step has been very important in making me more conscious about what medium I use and the different ways to tell a story.  I very much view this current series as an attempt to tell a story; now that I look back on some of my previous paintings, I realize that I was constantly interested in creating symbols and trying to tell a story, but I hadn’t yet tapped into it on a conscious level at that point.

Introverted Excavator, India Ink on Unstretched Canvas, 35x58, 2010. (Image courtesy of Jennifer Nalbantyan)

TH: “Introverted Excavator” is the title of your upcoming show at Chicago Art Department. Can you break down the meaning behind the title?

JN: “Introverted Excavator” is a term that’s taken from a Santigold song called “L.E.S. Artistes.” Actually, in the song she says, “I am an introvert, an excavator,” but I always heard “introverted excavator” which I thought had a nice ring to it.  I named one of the pieces in the series that and then I decided that it embodied the whole show, really.  It’s the idea of digging into one’s mind and unraveling all these fragments of memory.  I have very fragmented memories and I’ve always thought that my memories resemble dreams because I’ll remember bits and pieces of moments in my past and not be able to fill in the blanks.  So, basically, I decided to start filling in the blanks with my imagination and with strange imagery that I see around me and mess with the whole concept of what memory is.  Then I set out to learn screen printing and started creating screen prints of single images derived from the larger canvas pieces.  They are the simplified version and also serve as strong signifiers of more hazy and distant memories.

TH: I’ve always considered the memory to be a fragmented, fluctuating, but incredible thing.  To base work off of something so ever-changing and unsteady sounds like it would be pretty difficult to execute.  Can you talk about how you found a way to deal with the instability of these pieces of information?

JN: It is totally characteristic of me to choose to work on something that is so hard to pin down and that can be quite frustrating, even.  Part of the fun of working on this series, though, has been thinking about these complex ideas and trying to make sense of them, even if that’s ultimately futile.  I don’t think my purpose was ever to come to one supreme conclusion about anything, but to explore these ideas and create a stimulating body of work.

Death at the Dinner Table, India Ink on Unstretched Canvas, 34x54, 2010. (Image courtesy of Jennifer Nalbantyan)

TH: Are you willing to share any of the memories that have inspired this work?  Dreams? Nightmares?

JN: One of the pieces is called “Death at the Dinner Table.”  Growing up, the dinner table was a powerful symbol in our home.  There were some really tense moments around that environment.  In the middle of the piece is an avocado represented as a face with bleeding eyes.  That actually happened to me about a year ago.  I have a picture of an avocado that I cut into one day and it somehow morphed into that face after sitting out for a bit.  It freaked me out but I turned it into this symbol which fits into the scene I’m representing.

Also, in the bottom right side of this canvas is a circular object which is like a demitasse—a small coffee cup.  Whenever we would eat with my aunt, we would have Turkish coffee after dinner, which is a very strong coffee that has the grinds in it—you boil it over the stove, not in a coffee maker or anything.  You drink it out of these small coffee cups and then, when only the grinds are left in the bottom, you turn the cup over onto the saucer and let it sit for several minutes.  It becomes a fortune cup.  When you turn it back over, the grinds have created patterns that she would interpret.  And of course the funny thing is that they were always good fortunes she would read, so it was always suspect—but I loved doing this because I liked to look at the patterns and figure out what I saw.

One time, I saw what looked like two figures, one bigger than the other with a machete held over its head as if in a violent act.  I represent that image here—I actually took a picture of that at the time too—it just was so powerful to me that I had to capture it.  But this is a good example of the process that I’m talking about—starting with these memories and then using other fragments of visual information as symbols to embellish a story, or scene.

Jennifer Nalbantyan holding the creepy avocado, 2010. (Image courtesy of Jennifer Nalbantyan)

TH: How did your imagination enrich the quality of the memories you pull from?  How did it diminish the truth of it?

JN: I’m not really concerned with the “truth” because the whole idea is that memories can be so warped and bear such individual marks.  Plus, I’m not representing linear, accurate memories so much as I am trying to show how curious the mind can be in the ways that it can process and reformat information.  Dreaming is a clear example of this—the strangeness of dreams inspired me to reflect on memory as something that can be as much imaginative and symbolic as it is concrete.  The idea is that we all have so many memories that they start to bleed together and become, more than anything, symbolic in our lives as we attempt to make sense of events based on our personal understanding of ourselves and our environments.

TH: Moving on to your process, it seems very interwoven with the concept through the repetition and the piecing together of fragments.  Could you explain more about how your process and concept work together?

Wtf Avocado, hand-drawn screen print , 2010. (Image courtesy of Jennifer Nalbantyan)

JN: Learning how to screen print was an important part of putting this series together.  I had no prior experience with screen printing, but I knew that it would lend well to the ideas because I wanted to create strong, repetitive symbols that would refer back to a larger environment.  They sort of act as white noise; they begin to cut through and drown out the background noise, which is whatever is happening on the larger canvases.  It sort of comes full circle—I wanted to fill in the gaps of these missing pieces of memory and went down this strange path of piecing them back together, but then ultimately, my compulsion was to put them away in a semi-orderly manner.  Maybe that’s my personality coming through, but that’s sort of how I see the process and the concept working together.

TH: After seeing this show what would you like people to take away from it?

JN: I want this show to be fun but also kind of creepy.  There are some video and sound elements to help with the latter, I hope.  I’d like to have some good conversations and hopefully people will remember something from it.

Jennifer’s exhibition opens on Friday, April 8, 2011 at Chicago Art Department.  See the show during the Pilsen 2nd Fridays Art Walk.  For more information visit Chicago Art Department’s website here.

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