Two Artists On Finding Recognizable Things in Unrecognizable Spaces

Gaby Collins-Fernandez and Jarrett Earnest have known each other for a decade. Now, their art practices are intersecting in new ways.

Photo by Gesi Schilling.


Gaby Collins-Fernandez’s new painting exhibition, Very High Baroque is currently on view at Nina Johnson Gallery in Miami. Jarrett Earnest’s book of photographs and writing, Valid Until Sunset will be published in November by MATTE Editions. They have been friends for over a decade, and met to discuss the intersections of their new work.

Jarrett Earnest: The thing that surprised me after finishing my book Valid Until Sunset was how it became about the way that the images displace each other. We share this very high level of belief and commitment to form, which is also a kind of interrogation of what the image is. I feel that strongly in your work, but in these new paintings in particular, because of the way that you're using family images and images of yourself, distorting them and occluding them. After putting the book together, I really wanted to think about it in the context of your project.

Gaby Collins-Fernandez: You know, I think, on some level, I still don't really know what an image is. There are times that I will casually refer to the photographic stuff in the work as “image” just because I feel like that's the vernacular usage. But actually, that's not the case. The image is mysterious because it's concrete and also untraceable. It has to live in the mind, which means that it's always displaced from the painting itself. The image is like the votive version of the painting that we can carry around inside ourselves.

The more I leaned into not knowing what an image is and treating studio work as a way of trying to figure out what’s the difference between a print and a painting and an image, as basic as those questions sound, the more room I found in the work. The inclusion of personal elements is like internal Velcro to meaning. It is the thing that allows for the surface tension to keep everything in place and not feel random. Using painting to disclose something about who I was when I was 20, or who my grandmother was outside of my relationship with her, or who I was when I sent a sexy picture to someone is not so interesting when it participates in the fantasy that images can produce a concept of truth about subject(s). But placeholders, icons, shared image language—those are really interesting to me. Personal imagery lets me play with slipperiness in meaning and surface, like the foreignness that can occur when you look at a previous version of yourself or recognize yourself in someone else’s face.

“The inclusion of personal elements is like internal Velcro to meaning. It is the thing that allows for the surface tension to keep everything in place and not feel random.”

Gaby Collins-Fernandez, "Very High Baroque," at Nina Johnson Gallery.

JE: When I was talking about how I found images that were displacing, or metonymically linked to, other images, and coming on the term permeable… I think the way that you have dealt both with the superimposition of images in the work and also literally made the surface of the canvas translucent feels so related to that. It’s like asking, Where does it stop? Where does the image reside? And can I see something beyond that image? It's all implied in that formal move. How has the relationship to language in the paintings changed? Because I think that at least in these, it has a much-diminished presence, at least a legible presence.

GCF: Questions of permeability and displacement are interesting in relation to language and materiality. In Valid Until Sunset, it's like the image is permeable, but the photograph is not. It’s similar in my work: the image is permeable in the work, but the painting is not. The image can make itself available to movement, and the material remains concrete. One of the things that I thought was really funny and interesting in the book is that your descriptions of the photographs play with the idea that they represented something reproducible to begin with. There is an image of Agnes Pelton's painting Sand Storm (1932) that you describe as being a blue flower in the sky. But when you look at the image…the flower is white.

JE: Yeah, in the painting, it is blue, but it doesn’t look like that in my picture. [Laughter]

Jarrett Earnest, Valid Until Sunset.

GCF: Or the one where you talk about Genesis Breyer P-Orridge looking like a Georges de la Tour painting, and I had to really look for Genesis's outline next to the cake. It was only the language that alerted me to something that I was missing in the image, something that wasn't captured or was a fault of the quality of the reproduction of the Polaroid. The way that you use language in the book is to give us more information about the experience, which also calls into question the information presented in the image, the visual document connected to that experience. So both images and writing, incomplete but together, might hint at something that points toward a life—in this case, your life. At the same time, because you're only choosing the images that you've discovered are permeable in this particular way, we never get a full account or even access to the images that have a relationship to experience, which is more complete. The whole structure speaks to the fallibility of the visible.

When I first started making paintings with text in them, it was to try to present the most whole version of myself that I could, despite being kind of embarrassed about it. Text in art can be so cheesy. Then, I realized that including text in the work implied the idea of a subject or the presence of a subject without having to depict a figure. So, the relationship between a figure, an object, and a subject became variable. Including language in the work also kind of became a gateway to treat everything as language that might be competing on different registers. Now, the presence of the photographic print does that, too, because it's a borrowed, vernacular version of a subject. I think it might just be that my concept of language has expanded.

JE: It was so beautiful the way you explicated the way that the image and the language work together in the book as a dyad. What I wanted to happen was this: when you open a spread, there's an image and a text, and generally, you read the image first, and you have a certain sense of what the image is. When you start reading the text, maybe you’d even get to a certain part of it and then look back at the image and the image would have changed. And that by the time you read the end, the image would have changed again. Maybe you go back and look at the image and text in this more complicated, nonlinear relationship. The thing is, when one has a word in a painting, it's so dominant. One of the great achievements of your work at this stage is the way that you've calibrated the visual language so that the words don't dominate. They emerge, or you piece it together, adding dimension that you toggle back and forth with, but the relationship doesn't ever settle in a stable way. There are different ways that you do that. Looking at The Consequences of Becoming an Object, the text reads, “What good did looking do,” which is quite hard to piece together until you do it. You see “looking do” first, and then in the “what” the W is bisected, and the top of the A is broken. There's this dominant glowing orange thing that you encounter before or on top of that word. The G for “good” is so dark, it's so close in of value to the image underneath it or around it. Once you start seeing the syntactical structure of language, you can then pick it out. But it really is embedded; it almost wobbles in and out of legibility within the picture. Once you decipher it, then it's a question: well, what good does looking do? Does that posit the question of looking versus reading as distinct modes? Is the image-embodied word different than its status as a linguistic signifier?

“I realized that including text in the work implied the idea of a subject or the presence of a subject without having to depict a figure. So, the relationship between a figure, an object, and a subject became variable.”

GCF: One of the funny things about that text, which I think points to the kindred-ness of our projects, is that it is a refrain I've repeated in my mind over and over again for years. It’s a mistranslation of a line from “Having a Coke With You,” which is stupid that I didn't remember because it is such a famous poem. I memorized it when I was in college because I felt like it was telling me what art is: “here we are in this warm, New York, 4 o’clock light moving back and forth between each other like a tree breathing through its spectacles.” I would recite it to myself as I walked home a little drunk from very disappointing frat parties as a reminder that I was out for something more in the world. Or maybe something less, who knows?

The real line is, “and what good did all the research of the Impressionists do them,” which my mind turned into “and what good did all that looking do.” I feel like the ethos is similar. It’s a formally ironic question posited inside of the form of the poem that asks: what is it that art does when it can't compete with the kind of meaning that we experience when we're in love with someone or something? The poem itself reaches this point of exaltation of experience where you're just like, “Yeah, what the fuck good does poetry do? What good did all that looking do?” —all while looking at these words on a page. The success of the poem is that it happens inside of its own format.

I also think this question about what good looking does haunts a lot of contemporary painting discourse, as though looking at art ought to productively enhance your relationship to life or politics in a measurable way, that the painting ought to justify the looking that went into it to produce it and to consume it. On a deep level and perhaps abstract level, I agree. But on the level of style or surface, it seems really beside the point and moves us toward a kind of ethical quantification of art.

Gaby Collins-Fernandez, The Consequences of Becoming An Object, 2023. Oil and acrylic paint and digital photocollage print on beach towel and chiffon. 68 x 52 in. Photo courtesy of Nina Johnson Gallery.

JE: The whole thrust of that poem is: I'm so glad that you've never been to the Frick, so we can look at it together for the first time. O'Hara is such an apt touchstone, even though it's so nauseatingly obvious. The occasional aspects of the poem, but also the direct address, like the seeding of the names and their specificity.

GCF: It’s a poem that emotively relies on metonymy; it builds an image of a beloved based on specific details that will resonate.

JE: The thing that was so surprising to me about the way of doing this writing was that the language itself produced all these images, which are actually laid on top of the photographic image in ways that create a kind of a blur or a shimmer.

The reason why painting has reemerged as a dominant art form in a way that it like hasn't been for 50 years or whatever is precisely about this question of the image and what it is. We live in this tyranny of images. Paintings are this unique technology in which we can relate to an embodied image, an image that's also a thing that we encounter in time and space. You can develop an evolving relationship to the image in that embodied object encounter. We're sensitized to how unique that is because the majority of images that control us are disembodied; they are immaterial images. And so, to me, painting, whether it looks abstract or whatever, it’s all about finding ways that we can have a relationship with this thing that controls us, which are images. Literally objectifying that relationship. However, that doesn't take into account the way that images are conjured in the mind through language. And what does that do? How does that work? How do you think that that works in your paintings?

GCF: The shimmering image that you talk about is so lovely. It points to this sort of vibration because it feels like a nod to Candystore as well and also because it becomes trite the same way that a Frank O'Hara poem becomes trite. When you read it, it's beautiful, and when it becomes part of the popular discourse, it becomes tacky, and sentimental. I was thinking about your diptych of the Piero della Francesca in the clamshell—the Brera Madonna in Milan. You talk about it in relationship to Piero’s extremely rigorous, crisp geometry, but the photograph is blurred. It’s the most obvious example of a moment in the book of an image that exists after language, where the language of an image is not reinforced by the picture of the same image.

Image culture online is very material, though. It's just that we encounter images basically through light that's projected toward us from a screen, a technology that people generally don't understand. So, we encounter images not as a product of a process but of a technology. This is, on some level, the same as the way that we experience images in books as technology. It's just that the velocity of images is much faster on the computer, and the space that they occupy digitally is also more ubiquitous, faster, and incessant.

JE: But don't you think there's actually a difference that makes a difference, phenomenologically, in the way that you can have an image on a page versus on the screen?

GCF: Yes, absolutely! But they are still both material. One of the reasons why I started printing on the chiffon is because it's translucent, which makes it appear backlit in a way that reproduces the logic of screen space more effectively than printing on something which is opaque. Of course, the experience of reading books and turning pages and of a literally bound and also bounded object is so, so different than the experience of images, which exist in a continuous stream where everything is searchable and infinitely comparable inside of the infinite enclosure of taste via algorithms. To me, that logic feels so related to how we live, and it’s something I think about including in the work.

We are constantly given versions of ourselves online in a way that the self becomes kind of like an object. It’s dark, but it’s also interesting because one thing that painting does well is produce objects out of subjects. I was also thinking about the Matisse paintings that include tabletop sculptures of nudes, sometimes referring to older paintings, next to vases, behind paintings of other reclining nudes, sometimes even including a female sitter. This is evidence that Matisse is, in fact, a conceptual painter! People love the armchair quote, but, actually, those paintings are a philosophy of the image.

“We are constantly given versions of ourselves online in a way that the self becomes kind of like an object. It’s dark, but it’s also interesting because one thing that painting does well is produce objects out of subjects.”

Gaby Collins-Fernandez, Upside Down, It Gets Lonely, 2023. Oil and acrylic paint and digital photocollage print on beach towel and chiffon. 68 x 52 in. Photo courtesy of Nina Johnson Gallery.

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