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Q&A: Jennifer Cawley leaps into Alice’s rabbit hole in dreamlike paintings at Emily Amy Gallery

Jennifer Cawley: "Growth Chart"
Jennifer Cawley's "Growth Chart"

Artist Jennifer Cawley addresses sensory perception and personal experience with richly hued mixed-media works that combine Surrealist imagery with the idea of linear and non-linear mental processes.

Cawley has exhibited in Atlanta since she graduated from the Atlanta College of Art in 1991. The past few years have been marked by changes; she has joined Emily Amy Gallery and enrolled in the Master of Fine Arts program at the Savannah College of Art and Design in Atlanta. The recent work showcased in “You Can’t Get There From Here,” her first solo show at the gallery (through December 31), reflects the impact of her studies.

We spoke by telephone with Cawley. Here is an edited transcript of our conversation.

ArtsATL: Many of the works in your exhibition seem to contain stories.

Jennifer Cawley: There’s a strong storytelling component to my work. The stories that I tell are very disjointed and reflective. Because I’m an educator and a mom now, I experience the way the brain works and the way people process information every single day. It seemed natural for me to explore the way information is synthesized and how sensory input is received, interpreted and reiterated back out.

I’ve been involved with students with different learning styles, and it really intrigued me how a student will think or say something completely non-linear but arrive at the same conclusion [as others]. To quote the old saying, ‘There’s more than one way to skin a cat.

ArtsATL: There’s a lot of eye imagery in the work. Does this relate to your interest in the mind?

Cawley: Definitely. I was thinking about sensory organs generally, and the eye is a very obvious one for me as an artist. I liked the multiple meaning of the “all-knowing eye” — the eye on the dollar bill, the eye as a window to the soul, God’s eyes, etc. — and I began thinking of the mechanics of the eye like the cornea and light-sensitive cells on the retina. I’ve always said that my work deals with the past, present and future all at the same time. This work deals with inside-outside at the same time … the internal, the external, looking in, peeking out … sort of an omni-experience.

Cawley's "Perhaps"

ArtsATL: I noticed it can be very playful as well, as with the plastic googly eyes in some of the works.

Cawley: Yes, I like to tap into the absurd. Dada and Surrealism have influenced me. I started putting the [googly] eyes in my drawings as something to counterbalance the overly intellectualized and scientific nature of my exploration.

I react to different surfaces. I’ll talk about my process, because that has every thing to do with the way that the imagery develops. I start off with a gessoed wooden panel and I start to put down antique papers. I like to use antique papers because it gives it a sense of history right off the bat. Aesthetically it gives it a beautiful surface, and immediately it gives this sense of the old. I don’t like my work to be too slick. The yellowed look of the paper transports the viewer to another time and place.

So I start with putting these papers down that I’ve gotten at antiques markets. And the big organic “pourings” are shellacked. I use shellac and I use different things to color it, mostly materials I’ve gotten at a hardware store, furnishing finish liquid usually, which I dye with different lacquers. I pour the shellac onto the surface to form organic shapes and it’s controlled but not predictable. I have an idea of where I want it to go, but it does its own thing once it hits the surface. I let that dry and then start to look at the surface I’ve just made. I look at the paper and the shellac and have an overall idea of a composition or colors I want to use, but I really don’t have a sense of what image is going to go where. My work is very process-oriented. I react to the process. I don’t have sketches; I don’t have a specific idea. I work just by reacting to the surfaces that I make. 

All the content is whirling around in my head in terms of the message I want to convey, so I’m thinking about heads, I’m thinking about mouths.  When I’m looking at these surfaces, I’m trying to formulate an interesting set of imagery that will speak to people, or speak to me anyway.

Cawley's "Amble"

ArtsATL: That must lead to a lot of spontaneity in your works.

Cawley: Yes! Different things just appear to me. Some things happen quickly, like I’ll just look at the surface and [know what to do]. Other times I have to live with the works a little, I have to walk away and come back to them. I’ll work on six or seven pieces at a time, so I can go from one to the next if it’s not happening with one.

Jasper Johns has a great quote. He said, “A painting is finished when it starts talking back to me.” If the painting isn’t talking to you as the artist, you’ve got to do something to develop it. It’s got to interact with you intellectually. There are days when the painting isn’t talking to you at all, and it’s nice to move to the next painting and maybe that painting is talking to you. There’s a process of walking through it.

I have to control my imagery. I’ve been having this issue of jumbling up my compositions with too much  visual information. I was very cognizant this time around of harking back to my organic abstraction and minimalist work. I went through a phase of having overstimulated work with a lot of imagery, which was what that work was about, but I arrived at a place where I thought I could marry the two sensibilities and come up with an interesting composition with both the organic and the hard-edge hyper-color representational imagery. The marriage that happened in this work really excited me.

ArtsATL: What are some of your influences? You’ve previously cited children’s fiction writers and other people who are not necessarily visual artists.

Cawley: Alice in Wonderland is just a constant influence for me. [Themes of] scale, large things and small things, falling down little wormholes and coming out into a different world … I’m interested in the idea of things happening in another dimension or another world that we can’t see or feel or touch here. [The way Lewis Carroll tells the story of] Alice falling down the rabbit hole and the world she falls into … I just think the imagination and the psychological overtones are brilliant — to be able to tell this story for children and have this play between different worlds.

[My work explores the idea of] individual perceptions. Even in something as simple as a personal history, the experience that someone brings to the table makes his world look different from ours. When somebody looks at a painting, like the one with the pig in it [“Dinner”], they may have grown up on a farm and view the pig as sustenance or maybe they grew up in the city and think pigs are disgusting. I’m very intrigued by what marks a type of emotion or thought.

Max Ernst's "Tree of Life"

Max Ernst has always been a huge influence for me. All the dotted lines in my work I stole from Ernst. One of my first experiences at the High Museum was a visit when I was at the Atlanta College of Art in the ’80s. They have an enormous vertical painting by Max Ernst with a swan and it has all these dotted lines, almost like a diagram. I always thought it was an incredible painting. Dots and dashes have been in my paintings since the ’80s because of that guy. The idea of following or connecting the dots is very intriguing to me … they lead to places. Something about the spaces in between the dashed lines is very interesting, a place that isn’t filled but you automatically connect [visually].

I’m also influenced by music. I was listening to this dreamy music by the Cocteau Twins that I used to listen to in the ’80s. There’s something about the music that really moves me when I’m painting.

ArtsATL: … and ties back into your fascination with sense.

Cawley: Exactly!

ArtsATL: You’ve had solo shows at various Atlanta galleries for over 20 years. What prompted you to return to school for your MFA?

Cawley: After becoming a full-time educator, I was looking at MFA [programs] to become a better, and higher paid, educator. But when I started interviewing at SCAD-Atlanta, the interviewer asked, ‘Well, do you just want to be an educator with a Master’s degree or do you want to evolve your artwork? Because we’re here to make you a better artist.’ That really turned me around and made me really investigate who I was as an artist again, and what I wanted to do as my art. It made me want to be a better artist. The fire in my belly came back, and it made me want to show nationally again and take my work where I know it can go, which is much more complex and developed.

I’m in a situation where I’ve been painting for 25 years and exhibiting for 20 years, and I go in with these preconceived ideas and my professors say, “Do something different.” And it’s great! I’m here to learn! I’m exploring new media —  video and animation. I’m starting to do interactive installations with ties into my interest in sensory perception. I’m learning so much about the technology. I had all the material and process stuff down, and now I’m jumping into this whole new pool and I love it! I’m venturing into this whole new world of art, and I’d never have done it if I weren’t at SCAD.

Also on display at the gallery: a selection of works by SCAD MFA candidates in the printmaking program.

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