Visual Art 1-9-2006

The Skin of the Page: Jennifer Nevitt at Front Room

Patricia Briggs reviews Jennifer Nevitt's sensual little drawings at the Front Room Gallery at 2486 University Ave. in the Midway. Hurry over there--show's up til January 11.


Jennifer Nevitt’s new drawings on view at the Front Room Gallery on University Avenue are luscious. This is not surprising. For the past few years Nevitt’s work in paint on canvas has pulsated with rich, fleshy warmth. With their membranous pinks and bulbous shapes that vaguely resemble erotically charged body parts, Nevitt’s paintings emerge from the abstract tradition in which universal expressions are captured in the specificity of color, line quality, and disposition of shape. Of note has been the way in which Nevitt has deployed the language of abstract expressionism –often taken to be the property of a particularly masculine expressivity—to explore the notion of sensuality and passion from a distinctly female point of view.

The new drawings represent not so much a new direction as a kind of expanding horizon. Although they are not naturalistic, Nevitt pulls more explicitly here than she has in the past from the world of objects and things. A characteristic work is Listening, a 10 x 14 inch drawing in gouache and pen on thin ivory paper. Like skin, but even more like the elegant sheer fabric of an antique party dress, the paper Nevitt uses here is itself seductive. Throughout this show Nevitt’s style of drawing is spare and precise. Listening features anthropomorphized versions of coral and succulent cactus forms stretching languorously toward the sky, while white and pinkish skin-tones form into a kind of flower. It’s a chrysanthemum of sorts, whose petals are drooping, as if some caressing hand had fondled them once too often. With no narrative implied, the suggestive images in this work communicate the most refreshing actions: blooming, glowing, growing, listening, striving, responding, touching.

In another 10 x 14 inch drawing, also entitled Listening, Nevitt signifies the sensuousness of the female body in unexpected ways. Like the aesthetic caricatures of Louise Bourgeois or really smart animated cartoons, Nevitt focuses in and exaggerates a part of the body or an object associated with the body in a funny yet insightful manner. For example, with a wild head of hair and no torso, we see here the overly thick thighs and feet of a little girl dancing beneath an oversized crinoline skirt. Wholly different but equally delightful is the elegant elongated lady Nevitt forms from the sensuous silhouette of thick ponytail no longer attached to any head. These odd little gendered characters inhabit a strange kind of pictorial space, reminiscent of the dreamscapes of the surrealists, but which seem a much happier secret world to inhabit.

Nevitt’s choices of materials to draw on are interesting and add much to the impact of the works. Of course, the thin paper Nevitt often uses allows for interesting effects of transparency, sometimes palimpsests appear as one drawing is literally stacked above another. Skin of A Rabbit for example, is as much about the pen and ink drawing of a rabbit as it is about the vellum-like paper it is drawn on. To make this point, Nevitt folds the thick, velvety paper so that it protrudes from the wall. Some images are drawn on cast-off office supply cardboard with alphabet letter tabs protruding from their sides. Oxidized with age, these symbols of a bygone age make poignant armatures for Nevitt’s playful, sensuous dreamscapes.

The smaller works are the strongest in the show. Their economy of means and clarity of vision are wonderful. The few larger drawings are less successful; busier and obscure, they read more like random buildup of doodled musings. Still, it is exciting to see an artist truly committed to a sustained examination of a concept entering into a new frontier of exploration. It will be exciting to see where Jennifer Nevitt leads us next.

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