Heavy Enough to Sink: A Conversation With Jess Valice
You might have found yourself feeling like a stranger in your own body, crumpled in your thoughts and/or your living space, and unable to wipe the worry and anticipation off your face in the past year or so. I'm not sure if these were the direct moments of inspiration originally for Jess Valice, but her uncomfortable, enigmatic subjects with oversized body parts keep evoking such moments whenever I came across them recently.
Whether interacting with others or being captured alone, these moody individuals seem to be struggling to fit into their setting, just as we're unable to remember or decipher our current place in an ever-changing reality. Continuously challenged by their own body parts, they seem to be conditioned by these flaws, just as we're often finding ourselves emotionally bent over backward by our everyday concerns. And just when we wanted to feature LA-based artist's big solo debut with ATM Gallery in NYC where she presented mostly drawings, as well as a follow-up solo presentation with Bill Brady Gallery in Miami where she presented large scale paintings, we stumbled across this great conversation that Madeline Bach has with the artist.
Madeline Bach: Huge congrats on your first solo show, at 24 and in NYC during a pandemic no less!! Heavy Enough to Sink at ATM Gallery consists of twenty-one drawings and two paintings, all from 2020. Can you tell me a little bit about what you feel that you can achieve in your drawings that you maybe can’t in your paintings and vice versa? How does working in both mediums with varying scales inform your larger practice?
Jess Valice: Thank you so much! I feel that in my drawings, I can achieve an even greater sense of instinct, I guess? Much like painting with oils, drawing can be so free-flowing and forgiving, but once I begin working on a canvas, it becomes almost indelible. There’s one beautiful challenge there on its own, having a greater experience with painting. Another would be to think about color before it even exists – helps with using colors that wouldn’t clash with the overall mood of the painting; utilizing that synesthetic sense.
For example, in the drawing (and now painting) Only Dreaming, which is about my father flying through a nightmare, the super dark drawing screamed purple to me, and I seriously hate that color. It needed it. Maybe drawing will cure my hatred of purple.
I think that working larger allows me to just go nuts. It allows me to just not even think as if I didn’t make a drawing prior to that work and just use the space. Like it’s an infinite space, larger than me, that I can just have almost no boundaries--without any commitment to anything. The larger scale of the painting is kind of analogous with that great big memory or impenetrable thought that I just can’t get out of my head, or that one couldn’t.
The work nods to so many forms of classic surrealism and brutally fantastical environments. Specifically, the smaller drawings in this show present strikingly calm figures in some really precarious and contorted situations. Where do you draw inspiration from in terms of how you set your figures up spatially?
There are a lot of artists who have inspired me with that, of just utilizing space, but I did learn at a younger age to use the surface area as much as possible and to create gaps. And that’s just like a story: big moment here! Little moment here...oh but another big part of the story wow, plot twist! That’s going to lead you to this little moment here… it’s little but it’s important... and another big one, etc. It’s keeping your mind open, and keeping your eyes searching throughout the entire canvas in order to keep that information flowing. I’ve learned that most of the really good stuff is rarely fixated on one moment. You can do that with color and lighting too… it doesn’t have to be a big scene or stunt. I get that a lot from film. I think the artists who i admire the most utilize space so well. So my figures that are moving around the canvas with often contorted poses seem to move my eye around the canvas. That’s where I’m at now.
How, if at all, has your studio/creative process changed since covid has stuck around?
Well, I got a new studio…I have made a lot of paintings that represent some of my experiences during covid. A few of those are Box boi, Flat Tire on Maple Ave (downtown), Big Shaun, Heavy Enough to Sink, Relief Wagon, and Big Dove. Box Boi was literally confining this male alter-ego of mine into a small box, holding down a valuable piece of toilet paper which, at the time, was difficult to reach. That one almost needs no explanation but the bright colors and yellow box expressed that he was in a seemingly happy place, albeit physically trapped. It’s also the same situation with Flat Tire on Maple Ave; I felt like I could express my feelings toward my quarantined situation with a lot of different motifs. It seems like the idea of being trapped has been a recurring message in a lot of my covid paintings.
At this time I also began living with my boyfriend of two months (now a year). There seemed to be a triple-threat at the time between the fear of the virus, the riots/protest/new-found anxiety over my country, and this personally painful vulnerability of living with a new partner in a 700-square-foot studio apartment downtown. I think that [covid, loneliness, and vulnerability] influenced a lot, if not all, of the work I’ve made post-covid outbreak. I did realize early on that this was a moment to try things. Like, “Where is the risk? Just try something new. YOU LITERALLY HAVE ALL OF THE TIME” mentality.
How important is scale to you? Do you ever produce paintings smaller than 18" x 24”? Would you consider making drawings that are as large as your Heavy Enough to Sink painting?
The majority of my earlier paintings [The Workers, Going for a Ride, Outlaw Woman] were made in my bedroom. So, it was overwhelming to finally have a space to explore. Gradually, I began working larger and larger until I would find my comfort zone in which I would hope to graduate toward a different scale. Going larger meant that I could really go off… no more meticulous detailing on these small paintings in which I crouched over to create some kind of Caravaggio-esque realism. Large-scale canvases were a great tool to find my voice.
Yeah, “Cheer Up”. That’s the one Austyn has. That one actually changed the game for me. I have a lot of small studies lingering around my house. More often than not I’ll come home from painting to start painting. Those are almost always smaller. It really wasn’t until recently that I started getting comfortable with drawing. I was not really sure which medium of drawing worked best for me and I’m definitely still exploring that. I can’t deny dreaming of a studio day with large rips of big-boy rolls of paper taped to the wall to scribble on like Condo did in a YouTube video I watched like 3 years ago. That was amazing. So much freedom.
The figures in your portraits give off a consistently intimate and earnest gaze, knowing that you previously mentioned that you don’t usually work off of reference photos, would viewers be wrong to assume that some of these works are in a way self-reflective or referential?
Well, I do work off of reference photos sometimes. They’re just never directly from the photo. Like, I’ll take a photo of something interesting, or grab one from the internet that interests me and kind of use that as more of a driving force. Also to just mess with lighting. I didn’t actually see those sunsets and deserts.
You can see me in every painting. If you don’t know very much about me, you can see the shape of my eyes in every painting. It doesn’t really matter who the subject is. I’d find it very difficult to paint a figure and not empathize with them….no matter how grotesque they seem in my opinion.
I can’t help but think of the Homunculus concept when I see your portraits. Has your background on a pre-med track influenced the way that you exaggerate body parts, or would you say that these aspects are pulled more from contemporary culture and facets of your everyday life?
I gain a lot of influence from other painters who exaggerate the body. There’s no doubt about that. The beginnings of exaggerating features was inspired from looking at people and noticing how distinct features like big ears or a pointy nose or eye freckles are so unique to the proprietor. This recurring character I keep painting is based off of someone I knew who has these great big ears. I first painted him face-down on a bar with his ears sticking out (as they just would) and he was immediately identified by friends.
I think that studying the body in school just made me more curious about people’s minds. That’s really where the “gaze” comes to play. Also just placing someone in a certain environment and just assuming you know their mind. No one really knows where they’ve been, but people just use their own experiences to tell the story. I have a lot of fun with that.
What are you listening to? Who are you consistently looking at or watching?
Constantly listening to podcasts, audiobooks, playlists made by friends, old Townes Van Zandt, Marty Robbins, Leonard Cohen, The Rolling Stones, 90’s rap, Thundercat, Chet Baker, garage music...I can’t deny I play Ariana Grande often to pump myself up.When do your titles usually come into the picture?
Mostly after or toward the end of the work.
Going off of that, how do you think about assembling your compositions? Is it imperative to consider how imagery is arranged before working into it, or do you figure that out more as you go in?
Normally I’ll just go-in. I can find composition in various shapes to move fluidly around the canvas and then start making a figure. I hope to go into the studio with a good idea about what I want to paint and i’ll just throw myself in that environment.
Making the decision to step away from a burgeoning med school path wasn’t an easy or stress-free one, and you’ve come such a long way in such a short amount of time by way of your intense devotion to your artmaking. What advice would you give to anyone that maybe feels stuck/bogged down right now in terms of creating art?
Leaving my studies in something that someone would find “more practical” was hard but feeling so exhausted working toward more and more education in something that I lost love for was too painful. I’m just glad I caught that early. There came a point where I no longer had any time to work on art between exams and I felt the need to get out.
Advice: Follow your gut. Get tips. Allow yourself to take criticism. “Be the conductor of your own train”. And if you feel uninspired, you can really find it in any medium. I’ve made so many drawings and paintings based off of songs, books, and personalities separate from my own.
What’s next for you this year after your show in Miami at Bill Brady Gallery? Do you see yourself staying on the West Coast?
I’ll be in a group show with Carl Kostyal later this year. Maybe I’ll start exploring those big drawings we talked about… (shrug emoji?) I can’t leave the West Coast for too long. That’s home… but New York is really fun.
BIG by Jess Valice on view thru March 6th at Bill Brady in Miami.
Jess Valice (@JessValice) is a painter based in LA. Her work is Inspired by the emotionally exhausting journey of contemporary culture—filled with inspirations in online forums or California cowboys; mass-produced cultural objects or Old Master paintings. Madeline Bach (@tiredhag) is a cake artist and illustrator based in Manhattan.