Playing with histories—asking why things repeat and how they change—is fundamental to artist Jackie Gendel’s work. Her lively, engaging paintings are the results of an intensely inquisitive practice centered on making connections and gaining an intimate understanding of her material. Here, we chat with Gendel about the fascinating historical inspirations that led to her wallpaper collection for Peg Norriss.
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True story: when Jackie Gendel was trying to make it as an artist in New York City, she got a job at a wallpaper firm as a colormaker. “I didn’t necessarily like what they made, but there was something about the materiality of it, the markmaking, …I always daydreamed about making my own.”
Flash forward 25 years to 2019, when her husband was teaching a class at RISD on wallpaper making. “We’d been thinking and talking about it a lot, and that’s the moment when I got the call [from Barrie Benson of Peg Norriss]. I was like you’ve got to be kidding me. It was very timely and exciting.”
Now a successful artist and an associate professor at RISD herself, Gendel had no reservations about crossing over into decorative arts. “We’re in an interdisciplinary culture right now, and I always imagined being able to create something that was fully lived, to be completely surrounded by whatever ideas I had,” says Gendel. “It’s a form of thinking as much as decorating.”
Gendel, who describes her work as “very process based” produced more than 500 drawings before she arrived at her final three wallpaper designs for Peg Norriss. Read on for the inspirations behind each one.
Sonia Delaunay’s art practice incorporated many things—textile design, set and costume design, magazine covers, even readywear collections—and Gendel found that exciting. She was drawn to Delaunay’s explorations of simultaneous contrast, the way colors change depending on what they appear next to. She also studied images of women wearing Delaunay’s clothing and how they came in out of the background as they posed in front of the artist’s paintings. “They’re still figures of women, but they’re also shapes moving. It makes you think about the shift to abstraction.”
Oskar Schlemmer was another artist who did many things. After a career in painting and sculpture, he headed The Bauhaus’ theater department and produced his futuristic Triadic Ballet. “His practice was very collaborative and performative,” says Gendel. “He fought in World War I, and a lot of artists were dealing with the fact that human progress equaled more ways of killing each other through machines. There’s something inherently dehumanizing about imagining someone as a machine, but there was still some joy and humor in his work.”
Gendel looked to Delaunay and Schlemmer and how they kept an element of humanity intact through color and shape and buoyancy. In the end, Steps conveys a sense of power and strength through abstraction. “The image goes back and forth, the background becomes foreground, they’re all made of the same thing, they’re women standing together.”
The Golden Age
Gendel studied André Derain’s L’age D’or several times over the years at the Orangerie in Paris. The primitive, faux-naïve style always appealed to her, as did Derain’s depiction of the period of primordial peace in Greek mythology, a time before strife when man and animals danced together. Gendel has returned to the theme many times, and made many versions of Derain’s painting.
At the same time, she was thinking about various spaces dominated by scenes of people in the world: Jean Cocteau’s 20th century Tattooed Villa, 1st century Roman frescoes from Pompeii, ancient Egyptian Tombs from the 14th century BC. She was intrigued by the narrative of the scenes in the frescoes and tombs and she “loved the timelessness of the interactions, the overlaps in embracing,” says Gendel. “It’s formal, but it says a lot about relationships, who is looking at who.”
While other artists inspired the subject and composition, Gendel’s own work informed the details. She had experimented with pattern making in an earlier work depicting three women dancing with lions, and she liked the effect of filling her forms completely with pattern, stamping them with the kiss of a paintbrush.
Toile de Femmes
Most of the scenes in Gendel’s whimsical toile depict women at their leisure, and she draws a direct line to the Impressionists. “That was the core of Impressionist painting: depicting newfound free time in public spaces.” But then she mentions Florine Stettheimer’s Picnic at Bedford Hills. Stettheimer painted the canvas in the summer of 1918, during a pause in the Spanish flu outbreak. “It’s the same moment we’re in now,” says Gendel. “The image doesn’t change, but the meaning can change drastically depending on the context.”
Similarly Gendel’s archers might just look like women recreating, but Gendel points out that archery became popular during the suffrage movement. Likewise Marie Laurencin was well known for painting groups of women together, and Gendel found power in that. “I do consider myself a feminist, but I like Bell Hooks’ definition, which seeks to end sexism without neglecting other forms of oppression.”
But before you decide Gendel’s toile is making a political statement, consider the influence of Raoul Dufy’s work. “He’s a bit of a guilty pleasure because his paintings are often of themes of leisure. He was painting sailboats in the middle of WWII and you have to wonder what was he doing?” says Gendel. So she found herself contemplating women and friendship, the joys of Central Park versus the countryside, and hopping through time with Joan of Arc as an archer and a member of a punk rock band. “I just really like the fact that it’s littered with mice and pigeons and apple cores and lots of dogs, with arrows flying through the air and all these funny little details to give it a sense of place. I really had fun drawing all of that.”