Using the alla prima (wet-into-wet) method, Jane Corrigan paints private worlds in a messy, almost sculptural way. Each painting contains many paintings—one of them being the viewer’s fluctuating sense of what might be happening; another, what is about to happen. Corrigan’s subjects call to mind good actors: they react in heightened yet ambiguous ways, stirring a vivid narrative that always leaves room for the unknown. We discussed her painting Passing the Note over the phone. Corrigan was born in Shawville, Quebec. She currently lives and works in New York.
THE BELIEVER: What were you thinking about when you made this painting?
JANE CORRIGAN: I have these memories of having difficulty—I had a lot of difficulty in grade two math. I had this teacher who was really mean, and she put me in the back of the room all the time and punished me. So I made a lot of paintings that were an imagined storyboard of some of those experiences—almost like I was trying to replace the memories. I think I had a sketch of a girl in a classroom sitting in my studio for almost a year before I decided to pursue it. It was a girl who looked like she was doing her homework and she looked really miserable and it was on my wall, a little work on paper. And finally I thought, Who else is in the classroom besides this one miserable girl?
BLVR: Do you always have an idea of the narrative that is taking place? How much is figured out beforehand?
JC: I don’t. I never know. I discover characters and feelings as I go. There is a kind of chase that goes on—I’m trying to figure things out as quickly as possible; I’m chasing down the marks, because if you just stand there doing nothing, you know, nothing happens. These small paintings are done in, like, ten or fifteen minutes. And I think there’s something in the pursuit that makes them happen so quickly. I want to get them over with—like, I’m kind of impatient. Though I do spend a lot of time figuring out the facial expressions and the gestures. I’m moving the paint around; I’m literally pushing it around until I’ve hit a very specific note, until they have the look I want. They’re doing it exactly and they’re also doing it kind of naturally.
BLVR: Your paintings are very action-oriented. Someone is usually doing something. Where does that desire to depict activity come from, do you think?
JC: The only explanation I have for that is if I’m getting to know a particular subject, I take them through a sequence. It’s as though I’m following them. And I have to follow them for a while. They’re going along and I’m behind them and I guess I need to let them do things in order for me to get to know them.
BLVR: You paint a lot of solitary men and women. And when you paint pairs of people or small groups of people, they tend to be all men or all women—there is often a separation. How does gender function in your work? Is that something you plan out, or is it more intuitive?
JC: Initially with the men—all I can say about them is I know I was living through them in some way. I wanted to enter that world… I kind of imagine myself being that older man. I identified with him more than with a painting of a girl or a woman. When I was painting those men, it was 2012, 2013, and I was terrified by the idea of painting women, because so often, at least from my perspective at that time, paintings of women often ended up—the woman ended up falling into a role. So she felt either like a Madonna or a mother or whatever. It took me a very, very long time to cultivate a female subject. When I made a decision to transition into painting women, it took me a year of a lot of paintings on paper to tease out something very particular. And I tried so many different angles, but I ultimately ended up giving myself some parameters that were—OK, well, if I don’t want her to be sexualized, then maybe she needs to be prepubescent. And then I started to figure out what kind of context I wanted her to exist in, such as more of a scholastic context than a domestic context.
BLVR: This painting could be interpreted in many different ways. I showed it to a few people and they all had different opinions. What do you think the girl in the back is feeling?
JC: I think she might be getting ready to tell on them, so she’s watching; she’s not part of it. She’s probably gonna put up her hand and tell on them. The person in the background is sometimes the counterpoint to whatever is happening in the foreground. And the girl who is receiving the note, she wants to be rebellious, but she’s probably not sure; she’s kind of like the beta, and the one handing her the note is the alpha.
BLVR: Your work has a comedic quality, though the joke is always shrouded in some kind of mystery. I’m never sure exactly what the joke is—or if there even is a joke. Do you mean to be humorous?
JC: I don’t think so. People say there’s humor in them, and I’m actually unaware of it. Like, I’m not even a funny person, really, so I have no idea. It’s not something I intend at all.
BLVR: The people you paint are often looking off frame; they seem to inhabit a vast world. Your work has a filmic quality. Are there any movies or TV shows or even comic books that have propelled you as an artist?
JC: I never read comic books when I was a kid, really, besides Archie—although maybe that’s significant; I don’t know. I can’t think of anything that I grew up with that is influencing me now. In fact, I can’t even think of anything good from that time. The other day I was browsing Netflix and I saw that Cocktail with Tom Cruise was available. I remember watching that when I was, like, nine and thinking that it was the best movie ever—I had the soundtrack—and so I’ve been watching these movies that I watched when I was that age and, you know, realizing how horrible they are. Every once in a while I’ll see a movie or read a book and I’ll be like, Oh, it seems like whoever wrote this is thinking about similar things as me. But I try to ignore those things because I don’t want to be influenced by anything.
BLVR: Do you have a certain routine, specific things you need to do that lead up to painting?
JC: I have this neurotic habit: in order for me to paint, I need to become very boring. I have this routine of getting up at a certain time—if I sleep in, I get really depressed. I have to wake up at first light, and if I don’t then it’s like, Well, what am I? What is this? What am I doing? Maybe because I used to sleep in a lot as a kid, and so I see that as kind of bad, even though I can’t really stop doing it. So there are all these little things that have to be in place. I have to have oatmeal for breakfast and arrive at the studio on time. But then it’s funny because I feel like the paintings, especially the small ones, are kind of this wild, unpredictable world. I don’t know what it all means. But I’m regimented and then the paintings aren’t, really.
I also need to spend a certain amount of time out in the world, gathering information. I’ll wander for a couple weeks and not be too present with the materials, and then suddenly I’ll go in and do a bunch and then drop that and come in way later and either put them all in the corner or squish them all and abuse them, or treat them really well. I have kind of a weird relationship to the paintings… I often wonder about this or I’m a bit concerned by the way we—I don’t know if other people do this—but the way we either care for our work or just become abusive parents and sort of like squish it. When I say “squish,” I mean I don’t take care of them, and I pile things on top of them, so I allow the paint to kind of flatten. But often the ones that I kick around for a while wind up being the ones that I salvage later.
BLVR: The people you paint have almost cartoonish expressions, yet the emotional register is very real. When did this kind of messy yet exacting style emerge?
JC: Technically, since I was twenty I’ve had a trusting relationship with that way of working, oil on gesso, paper that’s about four by five inches. And I think when I have trust I work faster and allow more accidents or messes to happen. I keep saying “trust,” but I also think there’s a non-preciousness about the paper, especially when it’s that size. I feel like, Oh, I’ll just do this and nobody will see it. It doesn’t really have to matter. But in terms of the messy quality or the sort of gestural thing, I think it’s just a language, a kind of a shorthand that started to happen. As I went on, it just became more and more familiar. I was able to let it break down into messiness, and it still communicated something to me, like I could still make sense of it. Sort of like people who have really messy rooms: they can still make sense of their mess, you know; they can still operate, and so I think these paintings are kind of like that. They are purely messy, but it makes total sense. Sometimes I wonder if it makes total sense only to me and then I’m surprised when it makes sense to other people.
BLVR: What is the relationship between how you depict bodies in your paintings and how you look at bodies in the world? Are there things you notice about a person first?
JC: I think it’s the opposite, where I make the paintings and then see things in the world that I didn’t notice before. Through pushing the paint around, things come up, whether it’s a girl wearing nail polish, or a rock, or a garbage bag—these things come up through the paint, which is, I guess, coming from somewhere in my memory bank. So I’m discovering these things in the paint, and then when I go out later I start to notice these things in the world. Though I don’t really notice bodies. I don’t, like, sit on the subway and look at people. I’m not curious about people, really.
JC: The only times I notice people is when I do a comparison. Like when I did that show at Kerry Schuss in 2014, I had done a lot of other work, but somehow the show wound up being all about these prepubescent girls playing sports, and so then I’d be out walking and see some girls playing soccer in the park and I’d think, I wonder if my paintings match that reality? I’d just sort of look at them for a sec and think, Nah.
BLVR: Your work also has an interesting relationship to time. It feels present because of the speed of things—especially in these smaller works, we literally feel your hand. But I’m never sure what time period is being captured. Is it the past? The present? The future? Or a combination of all kinds of time—an invented time?
JC: Sometimes I will choose a time period that becomes part of the subject matter. Like with the earlier paintings of the bachelor men, I chose a kind of 1920s, 1930s, feel—or it could also be the 1890s. For those particular men, I couldn’t imagine them having any kind of advanced technology around them, like the most they could have would be electricity, but just the beginning of electricity. And this painting with the girls takes place in the ’80s. I find ’80s hairstyles to be so expressive—really wild—I mean, I remember doing the thing with my bangs and crimping. There was something about the curling iron and hair spray and barrettes and scrunchies …
BLVR: And teasing!
JC: Yeah, teasing. There’s a kind of brimming expressiveness going on with those girls and so maybe the hair was also kind of trying to say something or be something. The hair was definitely at one with—I want to say it’s a kind of sexual tension—not tension, but some kind of sexual energy.
BLVR: Yeah, the one in the back, her hair is sort of part of her alarm. You often accentuate certain body parts.
JC: I really like hands and feet. A friend was pointing out that I often have really big toes in my paintings. I don’t know what that’s about, but I do think toes are very expressive. They’re kind of underrated as far as body parts go, like in paintings. I noticed I was giving the girls who were more contemplative—I was giving them really big toes, so it could be like maybe they’re having really big thoughts right now so their toes are, like… growing.