By Virginia Campbell
The quality and quantity of light brought the movie business to Los Angeles, and with it an entire industry that was seldom interrupted from shooting pictures by the forecast of cloudy skies. This light also attracted painters like William Wendt and Maurice Braun, who cared not so much about the number of cloudless days as about the unique, half-desert/half-coastal light that created luminous color in everything it touched. Jennifer McChristian sees and feels Los Angeles light with the sensitivity of the original California plein-air painters, but she is very much a modern, urban artist. Like earlier painters of city scenes, such as Edward Hopper or artists of the Ashcan School, she is possessed of an eye that finds interest in places that would be written off as ordinary or ugly by those attuned to more conventionally compelling or beautiful scenes.
“I like mundane-ness,” says McChristian. “I don’t feel that I need to travel to find something to paint. I’m confident that anywhere I go, I can find a painting. Anything is worth painting. I’m impartial. I love any kind of subject matter.”
A small oil on panel titled IN BETWEEN makes the artist’s point. The painting creates visual poetry out of the dappled light in a narrow, overlooked space between two city houses. We can imagine that these houses have front and back yards to which some degree of attention has been paid, but this green space is more of a no-man’s land where an old charcoal grill and pieces of gutter are stashed. The geometry of this neglected world is eased up as the lines of perspective are interrupted with bright splashes of green and slanting blue shadows.
McChristian’s contention that anything is worth painting is argued even more forcefully in another small oil on panel, SANTA FE AVE., which shows a marginal slice of Los Angeles. This is one of those places you end up when your Mapquest directions turn out to be wrong. It is the kind of indefinable space that seldom makes its way onto canvas, but McChristian has reaped a harvest of curiosity out of it. A traffic cone, utility poles, what looks like a factory in the background, all framed by the underbelly of a bridge. The empty street, with no cars to be seen, suggests activity that has been inexplicably suspended.
“I like the post-apocalyptic feel of the deserted street. I loved the traffic cone not just for the dash of color but because it implies the activity of working, but it’s not going on right now. I prefer places that aren’t well known because I want people to have the feeling that they’ve been there without their actually having been there. I want them to make the painting their own,” she says. “It’s always a composition that makes me stop the car and get out and really look,” she adds. Once out of the car, the artist sees the place’s true potential.
Were McChristian’s style more photorealistic, or even just a bit less impressionistic, there would be an entirely different atmosphere in these paintings. McChristian’s approach inflects her paintings with an uplifted inclusiveness that sees potential everywhere. One key to this elevated spirit is the wash that underlies her paintings, salmon-orange she makes out of Indian yellow and thalo red rose. “It works with every painting,” says McChristian. “It appears warm against white and greens and neutrals. I use a limited palette over this wash and that keeps the harmony and creates visual vibrancy.” In fact, this rosy salmon color is an active, affirmative presence in all her paintings.
Over the loose, transparent wash that serves as McChristian’s foundation are bold, unworried brush strokes that are not one notch tighter than they need to be to define their forms. Counterbalancing this brushwork are the sharp edges of pigment that the artist creates with a palette knife. “I like my paintings to play with opposites,” says McChristian, “like the high and low notes and changes of tempo in music. My most successful paintings contain combinations of thick and thin paint, soft and hard edges, warm and cool tones.”
McChristian’s involvement with art started so young her family always joked that she started drawing in the womb. It was a given that she would become an artist. “It was obvious,” she confirms, “because I was always drawing on the walls and the floor with my crayons and Prismacolors.” At school in Montreal, where she grew up speaking French, her talent was recognized early. The school commissioned her to create a mural for the library, and she was the go-to person for every brochure or program the school needed to have designed. “My teachers believed in my ability and my skill,” says the 41-year-old artist. “I was a good student, a teacher’s pet. But I was also a recluse, a bit of a rebel. I wasn’t a cheerleader type.”
Both of McChristian’s parents, her American father and her Canadian mother, had artistic ability, and they supported their daughter’s talent. When the family decided to relocate to the United States in 1987, they choose Los Angeles largely because of the Otis-Parsons Art Institute, where McChristian was accepted and earned a bachelor’s degree in fine art. Being in Los Angeles provided many opportunities for her to put her art degree to work, which she did, first at a t-shirt design company and then at a successful animation production company.
By 2000 McChristian was able to devote herself to painting full time. She studied plein-air painting with Robert Blue, whom she says was essential to building her confidence as well as improving her technique. “He has passed away now, but he was so supportive of me, he was really important,” she notes. “He used to take his students to the same location over and over. He showed me how many different paintings there were to be found in the same place.”
McChristian, who cites Karl Dempwolf as another important teacher, developed quickly into an inspired artist with a distinctive style. She won her first award in 2002, and in 2003 had her first solo exhibition. “The turnout was amazing, and that was a huge boost for my confidence as a painter,” she says. “I was on an emotional high for days.”
Since then, McChristian has been on a roll. She’s now represented by a half-dozen galleries, has won many awards, and is affiliated with Oil Painters of America, the Laguna Plein Air Painters Association, and Plein Air Painters of the West, of which she is a founding member. Besides painting, her major passion is conducting plein-air workshops in locations like Ojai, CA, and teaching painting classes, which she does with her husband, artist Ben Fried, at her 1,100 square-foot studio in Los Angeles’ Los Feliz Village.
Her love for her studio and all that goes on in it can be seen in her painting HAVEN. As usual, she has titled the piece so that anyone who looks at it can appropriate the image and its implied serenity into their own dream of a personal oasis. The sunlit cottage is tucked between the edge of a roofed building to the right and part of a parked car to the left. These two elements have the effect of both suggesting the surrounding world and, at the same time, offering protection from it. This is McChristian’s true haven, a picture of her creative contentment. She has always known what she would be doing in her life, and now she’s doing it and being rewarded. “I’m living my dream,” she says.
Aarnum Gallery, Pasadena, CA; Abend Gallery, Denver, CO; Evergreen Fine Art, Evergreen, CO; Segil Fine Art, Monrovia, CA; Silvana Gallery, Glendale, CA; Randy Higbee Gallery, Costa Mesa, CA; www.jennifermcchristian.com.
Group show, Silvana Gallery, November.
Holiday Small Works Show, Segil Fine Art, December 5-31.
Holiday Miniatures Show, Abend Gallery, December 4-31.
Solo Show, Segil Fine Art, February 20-March 20, 2010.
Featured in October 2009