Harmony and the Imagination: A Conversation with Jessica Plattner

Jodi Varon, Phantom Drift: A Journal of New Fabulism, Oct. 2011

“Poets and beggars, musicians and prophets, warriors and scoundrels, all creatures of that unbridled reality, we have had to ask but little of imagination, for our crucial problem has been a lack of conventional means to render our lives believable.”

---Gabriel García Márquez, from “The Nobel Lecture.”

     Jessica Plattner embraces both the worrisome and celebratory unknown with playful fecundity.  The future may hold menace, but it also offers sustenance and joy.  Consider as example St. Christopher Carrying His Child-Self Across the River, Jessica Plattner’s cover painting for the inaugural issue of Phantom Drift.  The subject, a monkish St. Christopher waist deep in water, ferries a child across a stream, the child an infant with the wizened head of a man complete with five o’clock shadow.  

     Plattner’s work invites us to read surface and symbols.  Each canvas is a complex story, a chapter, a narrative, a resonance within a long and rich mythopoetic tradition of story-telling and painting.  Working with an eclectic primary palette and rich patterns reminiscent of Renaissance textiles and tapestries, Plattner’s use of divided space and multiple perspectives allows the serious and sublime elbow room for humor and dreams that augment the complex narratives in her work.  How would Plattner describe the balance of conception and completion in her painting, and how might the moniker “new fabulist” or the phrase “elements of the fantastic” describe the work included in her most recent portfolio, Fact and Fancy: Narrative Portraits 2009-10, of which St. Christopher Carrying His Child-Self Across the River is a part?  The portfolio was unveiled as a solo exhibition at the Common Sense Gallery, Edmonton, Alberta, Canada September 10-October 8, 2010.

     Cradling her infant daughter, Sofie, the rich essence of Indian curry permeated Plattner’s kitchen as we spoke.  A Gibson guitar was close at hand, flanked by packing boxes as Plattner and her partner, Canadian painter and musician, Dean Smale, prepared for Plattner’s 2011-12 sabbatical from Eastern Oregon University, where she teaches painting and drawing.  Her sabbatical will include studio work in Medicine Hat, Alberta, Canada, and an artist-in-residency in Florence, Italy. 

     Flux and generation define Plattner’s living and workspace now, and, though separated by a spacious second story studio, her canvasses vie with daughter Sofonisba (Sofie) Ann Plattner Smale’s more immediate needs and three dimensional play toys of spinning fish, giraffes, and flying bumble bees.  Plattner points to a six-plus year obsession with motherhood, and explained, “Even as an undergraduate, I thought about dolls, baby dolls, and the function of dolls in the lives of girls and women.” 

     Many of Plattner’s suites, such as the work in Indecision (2005-2006), Sueños (2005-2007), and her Fulbright Scholarship project completed in Guanajuato, Mexico 2007-08, Maternal Instincts: Portraits of Women in Oregon and Mexico challenge conventional views on the saintly mother.  In these paintings we encounter surreal, fractured planes, macabre elements, disproportional, looming, unsettling infants.  Women mime domesticity while clutching dolls, dogs, or empty space.  In Sleeper and Escape, from the Sueños suite (2005-2007), slumbering infants entrust heads, torsos, and legs in the tooth-lined maws of giant carp-like fish whose glistening skin is akin to the prints on tablecloths and flannel pajamas, starkly contrasting with the rich brown hues of the infants’ skin. The fish and the innocents remind us of Job’s biblical whale and Plattner’s consuming urges, her fears of the world of harm awaiting birth.  Invoking the domestic ambiguity of German expressionist Otto Dix and his Nelly with Doll II, Plattner’s Wallpaper (2005-06) takes up her earlier fascination with dolls along with fantasies about reality and the secret essence of dolls. 

     One of Plattner’s favorite creepy stories is “La muñeca menor” (“The Youngest Doll”) by Puerto Rican writer Rosario Ferre, in which the niece of a wounded woman bitten by a prawn transmogrifies into a porcelain-skinned doll with the sounds of the ebbing and rising tides where her heartbeat should be.  In Plattner’s painting the almost real, larger-than-life doll sits in the lap of an ambivalent and uncomfortable looking  Plattner.  As portrait subject, her short, flowered sun-dress bunches high on her thighs, her legs covered with grey-hued stockings that stop a few inches above her knees.  The doll’s red patterned dress and the deep pink wallpaper behind it, printed with daisies and ferns, swirl in a domestic medley checked by the worried look in the woman’s doe-eyed gaze. The doll’s right hand strokes the woman’s face, the doll’s flesh too pink and shiny to be “real,” to be human.  I wondered how Plattner might paint Sofie, given her macabre portrayal of the all-consuming needs of dolls and the children they represent.  All Plattner would say is, “I want to paint Sofie all of the time; the color of her skin is outrageous.”

     Daughter of noted painter Phyllis Plattner and anthropologist Stuart Plattner, Plattner spent part of her childhood in Central America and several years in her early 20s painting and teaching English in San Cristobal de las Casas, Chiapas, Mexico.  She credits the daily discipline of her mother’s studio work and professional teaching with imbuing her with an artist’s habits of mind, and the example of her father’s field work sparked her own interest not in ethnology, per se, but in the schooled and questioning way an anthropologist observes people.  Living and working in San Cristobal, especially, infused Plattner’s palette with the rich, deep colors of tropical fruits and flowers.  The primary colors adorning buildings, clothing, and altars resonate in her work.  Rhythms of daily life in Mexico and Central America inform the narratives in Plattner’s paintings with magic-real dream elements as well as the complex symbols of Mexican socialist-realism, folklore, and religion.  Inspired by the art of Frida Kahlo, Plattner folds Kahlo’s hues, dreams, meditations, and nightmares into Plattner’s own representation of personal meditations, feminism, and motherhood.

     By this time in our conversation, Sofie was on her second, restive feeding.  Sofie too has deep painters’ roots.  She is named for Plattner’s favorite Renaissance painter, Sofonisba Anguissola (1527-1625).   Anguissola shares a similar biography with Plattner—daughter of a well-educated progressive thinker, Anguissola’s father educated his daughters and encouraged Anguissola to paint.  Apprenticed to the accomplished painter Bernardino Campi, and, painting in the Spanish court of Phillip II, Anguissola was one of the few successful woman painters during the Renaissance.  Like Plattner, Anguissola specialized in self-portraits, as self-portraits of women were rare in that period. Plattner recounted an anecdote about Anguissola, how her contemporary Michelangelo saw Anguissola’s painting of a crying child and “praised the expression in the baby’s expressive face.”   

     As a way to explain her humor and her love of narrative, art history, and multiple perspectives, Plattner shared with me her favorite painting by Anguissola, the surreal and humorous Bernardino Campi Painting Sofonisba Anguissola (c. 1559).  There are at least three gazes in the painting, and Anguissola tricks us into viewing the artificial perceptions of her subjects.  The largest image on the canvas is that of student Sofonisba, wearing a brocade maroon gown with a high, white collar. Her red tresses are smooth and taut, save for the curls at her hairline.  The second figure, the austere and serious Bernardino Campi, gazes out, presumably at the painter of the entire canvas, Sofonisba Anguisola.  The portrait-subject Campi is painting, Sofonisba Anguisola, also gazes at the artist, Sofonisba Anguisola.  The artist herself presumably gazes at the entire scene while her subjects gaze at her.  Predating the Surrealists’ juxtaposition of context, gaze, painter and subject by almost 400 years, Anguissola’s humor and wry sense of story infuse much of Plattner’s work.

     Plattner retold the parable of St. Christopher, how he was renowned for his great height, more than seven feet, and how he was asked to ferry an infant across a swiftly flowing stream.  As the infant climbed up on St. Christopher’s shoulders, the stream picked up velocity, and with each step into the deeper water, the current gained momentum and the infant grew heavier and heavier.  Half way across, and in the deepest part of what now seemed a river, the burden was unbearable and St. Christopher thought he would perish amid the waves and foam of the roaring waters, unable to save the life of the child.  Despite St. Christopher’s doubt, he made the passage safely and discovered that he was ferrying the Christ child across the water. 

     The allegorical tale vivifies hope and piety, though Plattner had other reasons for choosing St. Christopher as her subject.  “I liked the story,” she said.  “St. Christopher, in addition to being the patron saint of travelers, is also the patron saint of San Cristobal de las Casas, Chiapas, Mexico, where I lived for three years painting and teaching English.  Also, I wanted to capture Dean’s humor.” 

     Smale, who is the model for St. Christopher, is portrayed in profile as meditative, struggling.  He is also portrayed as his infant-self being ferried across the water on St. Christopher’s shoulders.  Clothed in muted red pajamas, the infant’s face is a mirror image of the adult St. Christopher’s, and the infant’s gaze matches the seriousness of the adult’s face with an expression of wisdom and concern far beyond his years.  Plattner agreed that portraying Smale as both infant and adult could be interpreted as a magic real element, but as she watched infant Sofie trying to grasp our conversation while Smale searched for his daughter’s favorite video, Shaunthe Sheep, Plattner remarked on the elusive expression of wisdom on infants’ faces.  So, then, is the expression on the infant’s face in St. Christopher accurate, hyperbolic, magic real?  “Maybe all those things,” Plattner said, “but my main focus was to capture the moment.”  

     A black bear sits entranced on the nearby bank in Plattner’s newest version of the tale, not the grim figure of a hanged man swinging from a gallows as in Hieronymus Bosch’s earlier rendition of the allegory, St. Christopher Carrying the Christ Child.  Plattner’s depicted landscape is the watery Pacific Northwest, thick with cattails and Indian paintbrush, male and female mallards afloat on the water near St. Christopher and the child.  The curves in the distant hills are soft, rounded rather than craggy, suggesting cultivation and domesticity rather than the dangerous crags of more inhospitable mountains or an arid, biblical landscape.  We see inviting cabins with lighted windows built on green, undulating hills with well-tended paths leading from house to house.  Plattner’s St. Christopher, supported by a staff in his right hand and left arm outstretched, hand taut, depicts concentration as he balances among slippery river-rocks.  The infant on his shoulders is likewise serious, his small body twisted in an uncomfortable posture.  Submerged to his waist, the waters surrounding St. Christopher look clear and calm, so glassy the hillsides’ green outlines are reflected in the water. 

     “What is raging rages within the mind of the adult St. Christopher,” Platter continued, explaining that one of the painting’s narratives, in addition to drawing on the mythic parable of St. Chrisopher, draws on Smale’s biography.  Plattner explained, “I wanted to depict Dean carrying his own difficult and treacherous childhood on his back across the river, to a shore that has domestic imagery. It’s a positive journey.  He’s crossing over in a literal and figurative sense.  I don’t want to illustrate the story as it already exists; I want to reveal a bigger story that unfolds in the painting.”  

     “The same goes for dreams,” Plattner said, explaining at length:  

     Frida Kahlo and the surrealists were great examples of painters using dream elements.  Suzanna and the Elders began as a dream.  I was in my bed, and the door was high up on the wall, almost to the ceiling, higher than I could reach or climb.  There was someone looking down on me from above, peering at me from a window, also high along the wall of the room, almost at the ceiling line as well.  I felt trapped, menaced.  I tried to paint the dream imagery directly, but I couldn’t figure out how to get the perspective of someone looking down from a great height in a threatening way.

     I tried building a little model of the room from my dream to understand something about the perspective, but it didn’t seem to go anywhere.  I did end up using the model as the subject of The Artist’s Room, with a baby towering over a small bedroom.

     Finally I tried using the system of three point perspective to draw the scene, because with it you can look out and down simultaneously in the painting.  As I worked on the composition, I continued to think about stories, where someone threatening is gazing at someone else, usually a more innocent someone.  During the Renaissance, artists loved to paint the biblical story of Suzanna and the Elders, in which creepy old men spy on a beautiful young naked woman bathing in a pond.  I decided to tackle the narrative without focusing on the naked body of the woman, but instead on the psychology of the old men.  I was using a model from school for the older man’s face, and his personal narrative entered the painting similar to the way Dean’s personal narrative entered St. Christopher.  In my Suzanna and the Elders painting, the model had recently broken up with his long-time partner, and he seemed really sad and separated from his home life.  The model wasn’t a threatening man, but I liked him for this painting because he was so filled with longing.

    The man in Plattner’s Suzanna and the Edlers, his size exaggerated, gazes down from a dream-like height into a jazzy bathroom with lavender wallpaper, a bathtub full of frothy bubbles on the right-hand side of the canvas.  At first we see what seems to be an empty room and wonder at the man’s sad curiosity.  Or is it prurience?   On closer inspection the form of a girl with a long blonde braid, wearing a red and white polka-dotted bathrobe is reflected in the bathroom mirror.  Presumably Suzanna, the girl seems unaware of her stalker, as she is about to take a bubble bath.  Plattner paints the scene as less physically menacing than the Renaissance painter, Artemisia Gentileschi’s rendition of the tale.  Gentileschi, a contemporary of Sofonisba Anguissola, depicts the encroaching rape of Suzanna and the carnality of the perpetrators much more visibly.  The huge presence of the stalker peering in the high window in Plattner’s rendition of the story has no less deep psychological impact, but several narratives suggest themselves at once in Plattner’s painting: potential menace; the self-loathing the stalker seems to project; the bather unaware of the man’s presence, the man’s fingertips pressed hard against the window’s glass, and our helpless witness to the scene.  The high window’s perspective implicates entrapment of both the girl and us.

     “I think of Suzanna in the biblical story as innocent too,” Plattner said.  “The old men were suspect and lustful.  Suzanna was just bathing.  The sin was in their hearts, not hers.”

     Nobel laureate Gabriel García Márquez, in the epigraph to this piece, chafes at     European descriptions of Central and South America—descriptions of fantastical flora and fauna, descriptions of natives rendered foolish and child-like, descriptions of slaughter and the lust for gold.  He challenges the nomenclature “magic realism” used to describe his masterwork One Hundred Years of Solitude and cites the “outsized reality” experienced by the peoples of Central and South America, of massacres, dictatorships, disappearances, the “furtively adopted children” born of Argentine women incarcerated during that country’s infamous dictatorship in the 1970s.  He says his work is not exaggeration, but truthful.  “We put too many checks on ourselves,” Plattner says, referencing imagination.  “But I don’t set out to make something weird or offbeat or fantastical, and I think that’s what García Márquez is saying as well.”  She ended our conversation with this observation:

      Part of painting is just a technical challenge.  I remember getting in an argument with a professor in grad school while we were in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.  We were looking at the Courbet painting, Woman with a Parrot, and he said 95% of painting is just technical challenges, just labor.  I did not like that idea, because I felt that the content of a painting has to be more important than 5% of it, that the ideas and the story itself are more important.  But now, the longer that I’ve been painting, when I think of my own painting process, I’d say that 98% of the process is technical challenges.  For example, how do I make purple and yellow, two complimentary colors, work harmoniously in a painting?  How am I going to do that?  That’s what I think about.  It’s those kinds of technical challenges that I’m mostly thinking about.  Then it’s the content I end up talking about all the time, but it’s not really what guides the process of painting.