Elisa Jensen‘s imagery draws upon pre-historic narratives – ancient rock art scattered in pristine Irish landscapes, a Danish bog person sacrificed during the Iron age, or stone age burial mounds spotted in a Danish island. Her paintings and sculptures bring to mind mysterious rites and myths salvaged from a forgotten ancient past or perhaps from the depth of our collective unconscious memory. In her interview for Art Spiel Jensen shares some thoughts on her process, imagery, and context.
AS: What brought you to art?
Elisa Jensen: I have always been interested in art and felt that it would be a focus in my life. I studied art history in college because I thought it was practical, but I came to realize that art history isn’t so practical (the big art history firms aren’t really hiring like they used to) and anyway I didn’t think or see art as an art historian, but as an artist.
That sense of actually being an artist and needing to create became even stronger after losing someone very close to me in college. I emerged from the long fog of grief and realized that I needed to paint. My life changed, and I took the path of a painter.
AS: You say that your new work has turned inward. Looking at your previous body of work, like the series Girls from 2006-9 or Streetlife from 2009-14, it seems to me that there is a shift in your work. Can you talk about that?
Elisa Jensen: In a way the change in my work is a return to something that wasn’t completed years before.
After some years of doing abstract work I returned to the figure again, during the Iraq war. I was horrified by pictures of violence in the newspaper every day and felt that I needed to make figurative work to speak about the human condition. The ensuing paintings were mythic and violent and connected with Norse and Irish sagas and early art.
I painted the Tollund Man, a Danish bog person murdered and sacrificed during the Iron age, a Sheela na Gig giving birth in a stark landscape, people fighting inspired by Egil’s Saga, the Norse trickster god Loki bound and punished. For me the brutality of the past and the brutality of the present were no different: we have not changed.
What pulled me out of this vein was my experience watching my children involved with imaginative play in nature, in this state they were unselfconscious and free. I began to paint my daughters drawing in the sand, climbing, digging. The world of their creative play was fascinating and all engrossing. Sadly, when my daughters began to be aware that I was painting them, the spell was broken.
So I searched for another insular world and found a bunch of them right in the neighborhood: I painted bottle collectors, publicly drunk park sleepers, and the hipsters that had begun to colonize my corner of Brooklyn.
Graffiti is a recurring feature in many of these paintings, and those wall markings began to be my central preoccupation. Walking to my studio or around my neighborhood I was constantly looking for tags, admiring their bulging forms, their stylization, and the dense layering of marks and imagery that told a story of the passing of time. And as I painted the graffiti I began to equate the marking and symbolism with rock art from the Neolithic tombs that I’ve visited in Ireland and Denmark.
I saw the impetus and the mark-making of graffiti as not so different from some of the rock carvings from the Bronze age or Neolithic period, basically they all say: “I am here, see? I exist.”
In the last few Streetlife paintings I added my own symbolism. Hidden among the tags I placed spirals and sun-shapes from Loughcrew Passage graves and circular forms from carved rock on Bornholm in Denmark.
Then, when I was in Denmark for an exhibition of my paintings in 2014, I visited the National Museum to study the collection of ancient art and was struck by Bronze age imagery of acrobats performing rituals, snakes, the Trondheim Sun Chariot, golden boat offerings. Thus began the new direction, or the old direction made new again – I returned to paint and sculpt acrobats.
AS: Let’s focus on Liminal Spaces, your more recent body of work. It seems that you are drawing here on prehistoric art, especially from Denmark and Ireland. What brought you there and what’s your takeaway?
Elisa Jensen: I spent many summers in Denmark as a child, visiting my relatives. Later I spent time in Denmark painting the landscape in the summers. I stayed with my aunt and uncle who are both artists, on Mors, an Island in the Limfjord.
The Limfjord cuts across the Jutland peninsula and was a thriving place during the stone age, bronze age, and Viking age. The landscape is spotted with gravhøj, or ancient burial mounds and while painting there, I felt the presence of the ancient culture as part of daily life. I’ve painted on top of mounds, I’ve painted mounds in the fields, and I’ve walked for hours on beaches and through fields looking for stone age tools. My most prized possession is a blue flint stone age hand ax.
AS: And Ireland?
Elisa Jensen: The whole country of Ireland is an outdoor museum if you are interested in rock art, earthworks and ancient ritual landscape. My mother’s family comes from Ireland, as does my husband’s. Our trips there have involved searching out family history as well as Neolithic standing stones, tombs, and dolmens. I’ve seen many major sites, but really only scratched the surface. As I read Irish sagas, mythology and poetry, I realize that the topic is infinite, and I can see how the literature connects directly to the ancient sites and the landscape.
AS: Can you elaborate on your Neolithic art sources?
Elisa Jensen: Imagery from the rock art carved in Neolithic tombs has been part of my work. I’m interested in the pulsating and powerful symbols that speak to the ancient sun goddess. Birds also are very powerful as symbols in Irish and Nordic literature, and they have made their way into much of my new work. My War Crane painting refers to a rosc, a poem or spell, called the Crane Curse that Lugh recites before battle, while standing on one foot with one eye closed, in the pose of a crane. The whole phenomenon is fascinating – taking the time to pose like a crane and deliver a curse just before a battle is obviously mad. But at the same time this bit of madness seems to transform the violence of the pending battle into something poetic.
In making this work, I am beginning to see paintings as not just symbolic, but also as talismans that have the power to transform real world events.
I realize now that all the images I have been making – war images, my children, bottle collectors, people sleeping in the park, cyclists, graffiti and sun symbols – are all different versions of my one-legged crane pose, and my war curse. I use them to transform the random events of the world around me into moments of poetry.
AS: I would love to know more about the genesis of your 100 Gold Boats installation.
Elisa Jensen: During my last visit to Denmark I was interested in seeing some of the sites at Thy, including Neolithic tombs and flint mines. There I encountered in a small museum that housed three golden boats (the rest are in the National Museum in Copenhagen). The Bronze Age boats came from a burial mound in nearby Nords, and were deposited as a sacrifice. Made of thinly hammered gold, they are about 6 inches long, some have bronze framework. They were carefully packed into an urn and buried in a bronze age burial mound.
Boat symbolism is everywhere in the Bronze Age imagery in both Ireland and Scandinavia. In Scandinavia, religious rituals occurred on boats – boat carvings are prominent in rock art. The sun, “Sunna” or “Sol” was a female deity at that time, and thought to be conveyed through the sea at night in a boat pulled by a serpent. Circular sun imagery adorned for instance Bronze objects of all sorts.
The boat, a major means of transportation and trade, symbolized not only wealth but also our journey through life and into the afterlife. Just as the sun was brought through the sea at night, it rose again in the morning to travel through the sky. This cyclical worldview runs completely contrary to contemporary society’s focus on the concrete, on obtaining objects, amassing wealth, and obsessing with the finite world.
AS: Tell me a bit about your process at the studio – How do you start a painting / body of work?
Elisa Jensen: In my sketch books I draw from artwork and take notes on what I am reading. Paintings come directly out of those drawings. I love painting wet into wet, so I try to get the entire painting covered at once when I am working on a larger painting – this can be very physical, like a performance or a ritual. I aim for the color to be completely intuitive. The color source has been medieval manuscripts such as the Book of Kells, Lindisfarne Gospels, or the book of Durrow. I make my choices as spontaneous and intuitive as possible, there is an element of randomness to them. I am looking for a surprising sense of color with a light source that comes from within. I tend to work in layers, letting a painting sit for a while until I go back into it.
I turned to sculpture to support the new work. I sculpted the acrobat in plaster to see how the form turned. I liked that I could look at the sculpture from different angles, distances, and light – how the form, shape and volume could engage with the space. This was especially important to me as my source was a drawing from a bronze age stone carving, which is flat and graphic.
Since then sculpture has become part of my process and I am thinking more often about making sculptures connected with my paintings. The gold boat sculptures came from a painting; I had a need to see the boats as independent forms in space.
AS: How do you see the relationship between your visceral surfaces – spots, scratches, splotches and the symbolism in your work?
Elisa Jensen: When I moved away from the street life paintings, I realized that I couldn’t paint in the same way. With the figurative city paintings, I often pushed the figure right up into the front space, almost into the space of the viewer. The surfaces were concrete-like.
With the new paintings I wanted to embed the figure in the world of the painting like a fly caught in amber. The resulting scratching, sanding, layering, splotches of spray paint, and speckles of paint, all came out of my desire to create a world that exists outside of time. I do this from a raw desire to access the imagery which I see as primal and elemental.
I’m after an interior or metaphysical space, rather than immediate or known space. This approach was developed in my ink drawings and then brought into the paintings.
AS: You are talking about taking the image to “another plane of being,” which in my mind ties to the use of symbolism in your work. Can you elaborate on that?
Elisa Jensen: I’m not interested in my work simply representing the real world at this point. I want to use it to capture the gaze and turn it inward. I want the viewer to meditate on the symbols I employ and use them as a tool to slow time, and maybe even enter another state of consciousness.
AS: Where do you see your work in context of contemporary art?
Elisa Jensen: I have pursued painting that speaks to the human condition and to the spirit. There is a reason that an artist like Hilma af Klint is being rediscovered right now: perhaps people are realizing that art is something to be lived with, seen, and experienced and can evoke something greater than ourselves. Sometimes I feel that my work is archaic and strange. I’m trusting that’s a good thing.
I’m very fortunate to be connected to a community of artists in Bushwick and Williamsburg. I enjoy the collaborative DIY spirit there, the openness and the “anything goes” atmosphere. It is a huge relief, and it is beautiful.
AS: Can you tell me about your upcoming projects?
Elisa Jensen: I’ve just installed a show of Gold Boats and the Fair Wheel at the Roger Smith Hotel, 501 Lexington Avenue, the opening was on October 2nd; the show will remain up until January 29th. After completing 4 new panels for that show of gold leaf and acrylic on board, I am looking forward to returning to the studio to see what will happen next.