Interview with Jennie Ottinger, “What to Do With Your Orphan: A Manual” at Johansson Projects

by admin on June 4, 2012

Jennie Ottinger welcomed Oakland Art Enthusiast to her large studio in West Oakland while her current solo show, “What to Do With Your Orphan: A Manual” is in its last two weeks at Johansson Projects. Ottinger is working on her upcoming October show in Dallas; In her studio are several paintings in various states of completion. “I work on multiple paintings,” she says. “I feel like I’ll go too far if I just do one at a time. I have to tiptoe to the end, and wait several days and then I know what needs to happen in the last 10 minutes or last half hour. I feel like I subconsciously set it up to give myself a push.”

From previous exhibitions, Ottinger’s paintings and multi-media works have always involved some tongue-in-cheek humor with somewhat difficult subject matter: whether it is her current show about how orphans have been depicted in literature and her unique creation of a manual to care for one, or  humorous synopses of classic literature.  What is this upcoming show about? “The character is on a wheelchair doubles team, and he loses due to his partner’s incompetence at Wimbledon,” she says.  “He then sees a tennis star at the Men’s Single who’s really great, and wins the Men’s Singles competition. But they can’t play together because he’s not in a wheelchair. So, he makes him have a car crash so they can win.” It’s this illustrative narrative along with an original voice and perspective that makes Jennie’s work so unique among the local contemporary art scene.

 Jennie Ottinger’s current solo show, “What to Do with Your Orphan: A Manual” at Johansson Projects until June 16th.

As we sit in her warehouse-converted studio space, Jennie tells us she started to focus on her career as an artist while she attended California College of the Arts after an undergraduate Art History degree in Massachusetts. “I started in graphic design, and took a drawing class and I loved it. I had an adorable teacher, but I couldn’t draw,” she says. “These people have been drawing their whole lives, and they’re doing it so beautifully. And you’re so bad you don’t even get a bad critique.” She laughs and continues, “But I just loved it so much, so I took every painting and drawing class I could.” After taking classes in both drawing and painting, she felt like she was ready to make the change. “I called the teacher over the summer and I said, ‘I really like it, but I don’t know if I should switch over to Illustration.’ And he said, ‘anyone can learn how to draw. It’s a skill. If you draw a lot it will be quicker, and if you don’t it will take longer.’ So I had a sketchbook and I would draw anything I could.”

Jennie Ottinger at her solo show at Johansson Projects

And her work now, has it changed from the beginning at CCA, and later an MFA from Mills College? “There are more background scenes, they are more complete. I used to do really bare, fast and small, and the character and background were almost two separate pieces.” Working in several studios and environment has also greatly affected her work: “Before Mills, I was working really big and with oils, and then I started overworking them and it wasn’t fun so I stopped big and I stopped oils altogether. At Mills I didn’t do one large oil painting– I’m sitting in this huge Mills studio and I’m doing such small works. Then I moved into a small studio and started doing large works again!” She also explains during the course of the conversation how the minimalist style, and use of negative space changes for each project based upon subject matter and intent. “The last three projects I’ve done have been so specific. Starting with the books, it was more focused, and working bigger lends itself to [less negative space], too.” Yet, Ottinger relates her style is progressing, but it is still a struggle. “A little painting, it’s easier to compose, and with the big ones I make a mistake and it’s harder to fix… You feel like you made this huge change even though no one else can see it, but it’s more formal. It feels really tight in older works, and here it’s so much looser. It feels like a huge change to me.”

Waiting Room, by Jennie Ottinger

Represented by Johansson Projects since 2009, Ottinger has been featured twice at Volta Art Fair during Armory Week in New York. One year, she all but sold out of her book series of classical literature: cover art reimagined, and storyline humorously summarised.  She related to us how difficult re-presenting classical literature is, as the novels are already engrained into the subconscious, and there is such an attachment to these classics: “It’s that horrible thing: you know too much about it and you can’t get certain images of it out of your mind. People have such attachments to the books. At Volta, a lady came by because she had heard about the books, and she wanted to buy [Infinite Jest] because David Foster Wallace was such a great friend of hers, and I was like, “Let’s not look at this book, shall we?” She laughs. “A lot of people asked me if this was my response to the Kindle, my three pages versus reading the whole book, but it really wasn’t.” At Volta, Jennie was definitely aware that her work was seen by so many different people. “It’s the only way; nothing would have happened if [Volta] hadn’t happened. Tons of Europeans come over to these shows, the only way to get [your work] out there. And other galleries see you for three days, and how well you’re selling and get interested. That’s how I got this show in London.”

Paintings by Jennie Ottinger at Johansson Projects 

The majority of Ottinger’s work is nostalgic in approach, with subject matter of homecoming queens, mid-century modern living rooms, and moments captured from bars to airports, populated by men in hats and suits, and beauty pageants or homecoming ceremonies with beautifully coifed women in long formal dresses. She relates her approach to painting as one would approach theater: “I was listening to an interview with Wes Anderson, and they asked him, ‘Your films are so flat while others are looking for dimensionality…’ and he said, ‘I love theatre, and I always have plays within my movies and I have a theatrical sensibility.’ The way I do my exhibits, I totally thought of it as a play director, and props. I don’t go to plays that often, but I love the aesthetics of the theater, more than the structure. The technical aspects would work really well with my work.”

As a first-time mom, Jennie reveals to us her current show at Johansson Projects came out of her experiences in motherhood and those around her also becoming parents. Ottinger’s parents passed away when she was six, and she was adopted by her maternal grandparents. “It doesn’t feel like it, but I was thinking about the godparent thing, with myself and with my friends who also had a kid… who is she going to if something happens to us? I reflect on my childhood. I’m so nostalgic for where I grew up. My family has that sense of humor, they make jokes about tragedies, I love it. It’s a good coping thing.”

Jennie Ottinger, “What to Do With Your Orphan: A Manual” will be at Johansson Projects through June 16th.