To communicate anything in the mute medium of paint is a hard thing to do well, but speaking about communication itself through it, is a remarkable challenge. Enter Jenifer Cawley, a young painter whose recent show for Lanoue Fine Art, takes on this challenge, succeeding with equal parts technical prowess and raw inspiration, while never failing to make her points stick with a painterly vocabulary of dramatic range. Cawley can loosely be called an encaustic painter, a painter who uses colored waxes, but that is only partially true, because Cawley is also an expertly minded collagist, and she uses beeswax in part as a varnish to protect, or conceal the bits of scrap letters and related ephemera that find their way into her paintings.
It’s a big show, but even a cursory walkthrough will reveal Cawley’s obsession with megaphones, those almost surreally absurd forms appear in all her paintings. Cawley is fascinated by the megaphone’s shape, a beautiful sculptural form when considered alone, but her passion for them stems more from how and why they are used.
In “Next Move,” a medium size work, abstract shapes in muted hues float about near the surface, at center a thin young boy slouches in a high backed, blue chair. He wears a dunce cap, (an inverted megaphone) while behind and below him megaphones directed at the boy, vaguely narrate a drama of lecture and punishment. Seemingly in response the boy can muster only offer a beautifully smoothly blank word bubble that expands enormously from his mouth. This image of a blank word bubble, like the kinds used in comic books are also in abundance in Cawley’s paintings. While the megaphones could be said to be a stand in for communicators (humans) in general, the blank word bubbles could be seen as either open spaces into which the viewer can project their own words or more simply, as merely “empty words.” With “Next Move,” if you choose to read it in the former light you can imagine perhaps a dialogue between a teacher or principal and a young student who has gotten into some trouble and must explain himself. However the latter reading yields an equally interesting narrative in which dunce and authority merely exchange empty words, neither of which could be said to be more important or more right than the other. “Next Move,” is like a surreal drama in which even though the dialogue is incomprehensible, we nonetheless readily grasp the scene before us. But its not only the narratives of Cawley’s paintings that are surreal, foundationally her work with its free flow of associative imagery is firmly rooted in that historical but still fertile tradition.
Like a sequel, “What For” picks up where “Next Move” leaves off. In this slightly smaller and somewhat darker painting, the dunce boy is seen walking away from his blue chair, his dunce cap (megaphone) in hand, ready either to toss it or take it along. Above him a pair of outlined walking legs reiterates his decisive gesture. It’s as if he is saying “I’m in trouble, what for?” Interestingly, there are no other word bubbles or megaphones present in this scene, the space is quiet, perhaps symbolizing the boy’s intention to follow through with his own decision without regarding or listening to the opinions of others.Completing this cycle ( albeit one of my own construction) is “Impressionable Youth.” In this large painting three young boys demarcated in simple lines walk happily together in a field of lovely pollen yellow. It feels like they are out of doors both through the choice of the bright color (a rare event in these works) and the way the surface field is left open, free of shapes save for a line of twisted red that expands in much the same way that the color does so optically which reinforces the overall airiness of the composition. The three protagonists walk, parade-style, their megaphones to their mouths in a positive act of proclamation. What is striking is that here, the three megaphones are actually employed by humans, and do not anonymously float alone as they do in practically all the other works.
Megaphones are about authority, they are a means to loudly often forcibly address an audience. Here theses young boys are no longer subject to the faceless authority that the megaphones represent but rather they have found their own voices. They are impressionable young people, but with their amplified voices they now appear to be the ones doing the impressing. It’s a painting which speaks volumes about the freedom inherent in the act of self expression.
Jennifer Cawley is a painter of great technical ability, her work descends from the finest traditions of surrealism including Ernst, and Klee but it is never derivative. She has found her own voice, both in the look and narratives of her paintings. Cawley mercifully has avoided all those trendy tropes that have so far infected much contemporary painting like a cavity. She paints from her gut, but that gut has brains, the kind of intelligence necessary for paintings of her quality.
Cawley’s work is a call to both examine and question voices of authority. Her paintings proclaim again and again that the loudspeakers of authority are often nothing more than loudmouths or in Cawley’s vocabulary- megaphones.
Lanoue Fine Art
"Jennifer Cawley: Recent Work" is on view July 9-30, 2005 at Lanoue Fine Art.
All images are courtesy of the artist and Lanoue Fine Art.