Critiques, Luminaries

Can Art Ever Capture the True Spirit of the Sea?

Is it possible for an artist to capture the essence of the ocean? Its mystery, texture, and movement? Its fantastical and majestic denizens? The smell of it, the saltiness of it, the awe that it inspires? A gifted and hard-working visionary can take those elements and viscerally bring them into even the most earth-bound environments. Jennifer Clifford Danner is one such talent. We visited her studio recently to view her work and hear her story, and we were swept away.

A New York City-based artist, Jennifer is a graduate of the Rhode Island School of Design. She lived for a time in London during her childhood, and worked at the Betty Parsons Gallery in Manhattan after graduating from art school. She has focused much of her work on narrative figurative painting and portraiture, and on the study and interpretation of the ocean and its organic life forms. She works in several media, including oils, watercolors, ceramics and handmade paper pieces. A true colorist and lyrical painter, she creates powerful larger-than-life portraits of many of these organic forms and oceans, sometimes deconstructing them to reveal new interpretations, abstractions and humanism. Jennifer has exhibited in Providence, Rhode Island; Washington, D.C.; and New York City at Leila Heller Gallery and White Columns, among others. Her third solo exhibition at Stewart Clifford Gallery in Provincetown, Massachusetts will take place in summer 2018.

On a bright late-November afternoon, we sat down with Jennifer and her adorable dog Wolfie in their light-filled SoHo loft for a conversation about heirlooms, philosophy, art and the lure of the sea. Renaissance music played softly overhead as we spoke.

It’s always a privilege to be invited into an artist’s workspace, and this visit was no exception. The sea is the foundation of Jennifer’s work, and the call of the ocean is clear and true from the moment you enter the dreamy loft of the artist. The central double-height room is filled with natural light streaming through the windows. There are crisp white floors and walls filled with art in every imaginable shade of blue. Pillows and ceramic sculptures repeat the theme, and there’s a table filled with seashells collected by hand from her travels in Belize; the British Virgin Islands; Barbados; Sea Island; Massachusetts; Long Island; and the French Caribbean. The space has a cosmopolitan urban vibe that celebrates the natural world, and it makes us want to slow down and soak it all in. If you love the ocean (and we do), it’s a slice of paradise.

Jennifer later tells us: “You should have seen this place when first bought it 30 years ago — it had been owned by a musician, and there wasn’t much here except a mattress, an open bathroom with only a curtain concealing it, and a huge pyramid of unopened fan mail. Fortunately, we could see what could be made of the space.” And how: the living areas are charmingly constructed – the library is an octagonal space with floor-to-ceiling bookshelves; copper pots hang over the center island in the kitchen, and bedrooms are reminiscent of a grand chateau in France. When creative spirits dream of moving to Manhattan, this is the space that many of them are dreaming of.

But the space is not just home — it’s also an artist’s studio, where hard work is done. Adjacent to the central living space, through a wall of glass French doors, is a studio filled with art supplies, works in progress, and completed paintings waiting to be framed. Three large watercolor portraits are in the final stages — two of mothers with children, and one of a solo female wearing choice jewelry and a gorgeous red dress. Yes, these are holiday gifts, and it’s nearly time for their delivery. We love several elements of the work — the use of color, especially for the clothing and accessories — but what stays with us are the luminous eyes of the subjects. These are truly lovely works of art that will become treasured family heirlooms.

That’s appropriate, as Jennifer’s home is filled with paintings and furniture that have been passed through generations of both sides of her family. An oil painting of her grandmother graces the living room, and a second one by Edward Steichen presides over the guest bedroom. A tea set inherited from her husband’s aunt was crafted by Joseph Hoffman, one of the Austrian artisans and co-founder of the Wiener Werkstätte, whose work is currently on display at an exhibit at the Neue Galerie. The Louis XV French commode on which it sits is also a family heirloom. The tiger maple four-poster bed in the guest room has been passed down through several generations – the family lore is that the tops of the columns were chopped off so that the bed would fit into one of the low-ceilinged homes of an ancestor. One of the living room walls holds a Japanese folding screen from the Edo Period. The loft is a wonderful mix of airy and light, serious and grounded – it feels fresh and timeless, but full of heritage and meaning. It’s simply beautiful.

We notice a copy of Bomb Magazine on a nearby table and learn that Jennifer has been featured in the editor’s choice section, and was also commissioned to do two covers for the publication. One was of the playwright, Tony Kushner (who had recently published his play Angels in America) and the other was the gifted actress Kate Valk as Ophelia (in the Wooster Group’s production of Hamlet). Bomb Magazine was founded in 1981 to literally give voice to the artist; it features conversations between artists and showcases their new work in disciplines including visual art, literature, poetry, theater, architecture and music.

On to the art! The portraits are an important part of Jennifer’s work, and they would be the perfect gift for the holidays, or for a special birthday, anniversary or family milestone. Many of the portraits are larger than life and can run up to five-figures in terms of cost, taking 3-8 months to complete.  Jennifer visits the homes of the subjects several times and then works at her studio to complete the paintings.

The portraits we saw were all watercolors, but Jennifer works across multiple mediums: oil paintings, watercolors, ceramic sculptures and most recently handmade paper. Other than the portraits, the common element is her passion for the life and creatures of the sea. It’s been a lifelong passion, even though she is a child of Manhattan, schooled at Spence, she spent her childhood summers on the coast of Massachusetts. “I studied at the Rhode Island School of Design, and that’s when I began creating art inspired by the sea. The work of making paper is a very wet process, and she’s been working extensively with handmade paper to create her latest works based on the sea. As she playfully explains: “it’s using water to make water.”

One of the most imaginative works our eyes first lit on is a multi-media conceptual piece of three horseshoe crabs, each encased in plastic netting – the type that might house a bag of lemons at the supermarket. Beneath each plastic-encased horseshoe crab are 3 oil-on-wood intensely blue paintings of the ocean. It’s entitled Meditations on the Immortality of Plastic. This work highlights issues of pollution from plastics and acidification of the worlds’ oceans, as well as highlighting the endangerment of the horseshoe crab, which has been present on earth since the Triassic period and is now considered a living fossil (Jennifer notes that they are being harvested for the copper in their blood by biomedical companies).

There are small oil paintings of jellyfish — some figurative and some abstract. They’re married with far larger watercolor paintings of jellyfish and other sea creatures. “I like experimenting with scale in my work – going from small to extremely large canvases, exploring macro and micro views of sea life.”

That curiosity about scale and texture has led the artist in fascinating directions. “My neighbor is a sculptor, and she introduced me to Dieu Donné Paper Mill –now in the Brooklyn Navy Yard. That’s where I began making my own paper, and that led me to start creating a new series of works.” These are among the most unusual and luminous of the offerings on display: layers of handmade paper, some with tints of blue or green, with a white silhouette of a figurative or abstract sea creature, threaded throughout with strands of embedded seaweed that has been hand-collected by the artist in Duxbury or Provincetown. When held up to the light, they’re almost translucent. That led Jennifer to framing them with an illuminated light box behind them. This gives them layers of meaning not clear when viewed without the anterior lighting: some of the works appear to be fossils suspended in amber — others almost become animated, with layers of color so rich and nuanced that objects appear to be swimming — or drifting — in a deep cerulean sea. It’s a magical effect.

The works we saw in this genre were relatively small, but the artist has a bold vision for how this idea might be expanded. She shares a work in progress that she fondly calls “The Octopus”: a six-paneled work measuring 10’ x 10’, all in shades of white, ivory and sand that will be absolutely mesmerizing when complete. There’s another large-scale work in progress — an abstract piece in gorgeous shades of blue — that is meant to feel like an immersion in the sea. This makes us think of baptism, cleansing rituals, transformation and new beginnings.

The ultimate goal? “I would like to create a truly immersive experience — a room that would be covered with these works on all sides, including the floor and on the ceiling. An ocean meditation room.” She shows us a scale rendition of the idea, and we immediately get it. It would be somewhat like the experience of visiting a really wonderful aquarium — a way of escaping the land and imaginatively diving deep underwater to explore, to discover, to reflect, to dream, to learn, to grow, and to emerge transformed.

It reminded us of the first time we read The Tempest — that feeling that the ocean holds profound secrets, and treasures, and lessons — and that unlocking them takes the help of someone wise and spirited, and that this artist is one of those people. Pearls, monsters, sunken ships, luminescent worms, ghostly jellyfish — hard to say what one might find beneath the ocean — but how much fun to plunge in headfirst and see what awaits you?

The streak of creativity and exploration runs in Jennifer’s family. One of her sons is training as an opera singer and has founded an arts non-profit that produces the work of young artists across a wide range of media. The other is a composer, singer, guitarist and sound engineer who has written an Electronic Dance-Opera that will begin performances in New York on December 16th at the Martha Graham Studio, and is being produced by his brother’s company.

This leads us to a conversation about the nature of artists and their desire to provoke thought and change. The recent Swedish film The Square addressed these issues – how far is too far to go with art? When do you have to protect people, and where are the limits to which an artist should adhere? We imagine that these conversations happen frequently in a family of creative people like this one.

Jennifer’s demeanor is humble and gracious, but after spending an afternoon with her, we saw clearly that her vision and imagination are bold and decisive. We can’t wait to see what she will do with next with the idea of the texture and meaning of water, of immersion, of the mysteries of the sea and its denizens and what it means for those of us here on the shore. This is powerful imagery, and in expert hands. We reluctantly left Jennifer’s studio and went back into the cobblestone streets of the city, dreaming of the sea. It’s an anxious, maddening, illogical and fearful moment in many parts of the world. Her work speaks to the deep need for connection, continuity and cleansing. Sometimes it takes a trip to the ocean depths to feel truly grounded.

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