Jemima Kirke is a painter and an actress, known for her role of Jessa on the HBO show Girls. She attended Rhode Island School of Design, where she made small, abstract works on paper that carry an influence of German expressionism. Later, she made an acute turn toward a more traditional form of portraiture painting, using easels and live models, mostly friends and family, some of whom are nude. Her images are often charged with uncertain psychological tensions, and are constructed from deep, earthy hues and strong, oily brushstrokes.
I met Kirke at her Brooklyn studio, a converted apartment on the ground floor of her home in Carroll Gardens. In the space she’s built a wooden dais for her models and hung some old photographs on the walls. As we talked about her work, we browsed her collection of art monographs (Joseph Beuys, Elizabeth Neel), and opened some of her mail, which included an ebay-ordered poster for the 1981 German film Christiane F., and some snack bags for her daughter’s lunch.
THE BELIEVER: What’s the name of this one?
JEMIMA KIRKE: It’s probably going to be my daughter’s name, Rafaella.
BLVR: Do you usually name portraits after people?
JK: Yeah, naming is hard. Since it’s my first painting of her I don’t want to name it anything different.
BLVR: You just finished it this morning, right?
BLVR: How did you start it?
JK: I had her stand up on this stage. I built it so the model would be at eye level with me—so I wouldn’t be looking down, which I’ve done, but I just wanted to try it. So I had her stand there and she painted. She has her own little easel and I brought her colors in and let her paint. And every now and then I would have her stand and face me just so I could get her features and the shape of her body. But I knew she wouldn’t sit still, so it had to be more about getting down her presence.
BLVR: Would you say it was done quickly?
JK: Yeah, pretty quickly. I probably worked on it for fifteen hours.
BLVR: How many of those hours would you say she was actually standing in front of you?
JK: Two. I’m really fast. I probably got the whole thing, without the colors or the buildup. I got the position the whole time she was there. When I paint an adult I try to have them come in every time I work on it, but not this time.
BLVR: And then, when she wasn’t there, it was just a matter of refining?
JK: Yeah, it was. And just thinking about her and trying to exaggerate what I know about her. Her legs, her belly, her massive head. It’s not about getting the exact proportions, or the exact lighting. That stuff happened afterward. I was looking at other paintings of children and it’s interesting what people do. I was looking at [Ernst] Ludwig Kirschner. He had this one little girl he would constantly paint. But he could never get her exact. I saw that they had those photos of her, and none of those paintings even looked like her. But this one, I kind of wanted it to look a little bit like her. Maybe because it’s my daughter. Maybe it’s hard to distance myself from the subject. It would be interesting, I think, to paint a girl her age who was not my daughter.
BLVR: Did you use a photo?
JK: I did end up taking a picture of her and using that a little bit.
BLVR: Is that cheating?
JK: For me it is.
BLVR: You like to paint from life.
JK: Oh yeah. Because my paintings from my photos are terrible, because I get obsessed, and then it looks like a painting from a photo. So I had to try to look at it, put it away, and then paint.
BLVR: Does painting from life allow more spontaneity?
JK: Yes. I’m trying to eliminate the stuff that doesn’t matter. Their shape, their exact relationship to the floor, the exact proportions of their arms, just stuff to me that’s really not that relevant.
BLVR: What is relevant?
JK: Tension is relevant. The legs to me were very important. Those legs are three-year-old legs. They’re little-kid legs and that was really important to me, to exaggerate that bowlegged hyperextension thing. The belly was important, the chubbiness of the arms. And also the physical darkness. She’s standing under really harsh lighting. She’s also got deep-set eyes. She’s got kind of a funny face. Really black eyes, like you can’t see the pupils. And she’s very serious.
BLVR: Looks like it.
JK: Right, she’s a serious kid. So the dark stuff was important, too. And I wanted to put her in a corner because it just seemed sort of appropriate for a little kid to be put in a corner. There’s something very adult about her, and therein lies some tension that I wanted. The adult face with the childlike legs and belly and stuff. And she’s also kind of wearing underwear. It’s like old-fashioned underwear. She was wearing a dress, and I told her to take the dress off. And that’s what she was wearing under the dress.
BLVR: What about the position she’s in?
JK: Well, originally she had her arms down and I painted it like that, and then she put her arms up at one point, and I thought it was an interesting move for a little kid. I was like, That’s kind of sexual and weird. She was thinking and stretching and had her hands back like that. It was an impulsive, kidlike thing to do. But what if you put it on paper? Then it could look sexual. Look at Balthus. He puts little girls on the floor reading a book, which is not sexual, but then he paints it and it is. I mean, I didn’t go there completely. But, you know, kids are sexual.
BLVR: You think so?
JK: They’re just sexual beings. I mean, eventually there will be stuff that will inhibit them. My kid, she’s not provocative. She’s unconscious of it, and it’s not like she’s coming on to anyone and it’s not like anyone in their right mind would see her as attractive, but she’s aware of her body. All kids are. And I think it’s a really interesting moment in a person’s life, before they are actually aware of what everything means. If I were to redo this I would try and go there a little more. I would like to experiment with that subject more. I will paint her nude.
BLVR: It doesn’t seem as though you have any reservations. There’s no parental…
JK: There is! Because I see a painting as very different than a photograph. A photograph is their actual likeness. It’s them. This is an interpretation. It really has very little to do with her. I’m not putting her on display. It’s just marks on canvas. Essentially, I’m making it up. Her body and identity are safe. I’m her mother! I’m just asking questions.
BLVR: She’s just the vessel for your ideas?
JK: Exactly. I grew up with a lot of painters, a lot of friends whose parents were painters. And I think that’s what made it acceptable to me. I saw very normal, very loving parents do these paintings of their kids and photograph their kids in questionable ways.
BLVR: Did you ever get painted?
JK: Yeah, I did nude modeling in my early twenties. But even then I didn’t really feel that was about me. It just felt like they were using my body. It could have been anybody. There’s this Alice Neel portrait—and, yes, obviously I know my shit looks like hers—but she did a painting of her daughter nude [Isabetta, 1934] and it has goofy feet and it’s a really generic body. It’s very made-up. I love this painting. It definitely was the inspiration for the size and the composition of my painting.
BLVR: Have you seen the Alice Neel documentary?
JK: Yeah, I actually did some work for it. Andrew Neel [Alice’s grandson] made it. She wasn’t a great parent, I don’t think. She put painting first. The kids were like, “We had great paintings but we couldn’t fucking eat.” But I find those kinds of stories inspirational, where women are painters and mums. I try to take some aspects of that to figure how to balance the two. And sometimes that means not balancing them.
BLVR: Who do you think is an example of that sort of balance?
JK: Elizabeth Murray was a painter and was a loving mother to her two children. But most of the stories I hear of successful women artists are that they weren’t great parents. So I’m just waiting till my daughter’s older, when I can be as selfish as I need to be to work. I’ve heard Louise Bourgeois was a pretty devoted mum.
BLVR: But she didn’t get known—
JK: —until she was older. I think when she was pregnant and had little kids she would always try to do nontoxic work. But it takes a real strength of character to be able to be a mum and an artist. Real commitment. Or maybe it’s just time. Maybe it’s just not my time. I’m working fine now and I’m being consistent. But maybe my time for making my best stuff is for when they’re out of the house.
BLVR: Do you think art requires selfishness?
JK: Oh yeah, for sure. Creating art is so time-consuming and mind-consuming. It’s not a job where I’ll go downstairs and I’ve got two hours to work on something. No, most of the time I’m just sitting there, staring and thinking, and by the time two hours is up I’ve done nothing but scrape the paint off my palette. I do a lot of cleaning.