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Visual Language

Jennifer Meanley creates kaleidoscopic realities

By Liza Roberts


Center: As if smoldering and smoke were oneness evoked by thought and expression, oil on paper mounted on panel, 15 x 15 inches, 2019.

Right: Milk-Ersatz, spilt, oil on canvas, 48 x 56 inches, 2017.

Intimate but alienating, lush and allegorical, Jennifer Meanley’s paintings appear to capture the moments upon which events hinge. Figures, often out of scale with their environments, gaze at odd angles within untamed, kaleidoscopic settings, more consumed with their interior lives than with the discordant scenes they inhabit. Animals, alive and dead, sometimes share the space. Something’s clearly about to happen, or might be happening, or perhaps already has happened. Are her subjects aware? 

“There is often a sense of lack of synchronicity between how we experience our bodies and how we experience our mind, our emotional states,” Meanley says. Her paintings “often register that paradox, whether that’s with the animals, or the symbolism with the space itself . . . or whether the figure seems to be looking and registering and connecting” to reality. Or not.


At UNC-Greensboro, where she teaches drawing and painting, Meanley paints these large-scale depictions of human experience. Simultaneously capturing the spheres of action, memory, participation and observation, she invites a viewer to examine the parts and absorb the whole. Like poetry, her works reveal themselves in stages and elements: image, rhythm, tone, vocabulary, story. Color plays a major role. “I’ve always had a penchant for really saturated colors,” she says, especially as a way to indicate atmosphere, like light, air, wind and the grounding element of earth.

Does she begin with a narrative? Not really, or not always. In a painting underway on her working wall — in which a caped, gamine figure gazes upon a flayed animal, possibly a deer, within a riotously overgrown landscape — the New Hampshire native describes her impetus: “I was thinking of this sort of crazy Bacchanal,” she says, “or of a surplus, imagination as a kind of surplus.” Anything is possible in the abundant realm of the imagined, she points out. The real world is another matter.

It’s no surprise to learn that Meanley writes regularly in forms she compares to short stories that emerge from streams of consciousness. It’s a process she describes as if it’s a place where she goes: Language is “like a field that I experience, stepping in and noticing punctuation, noticing the spaces between things, or the pauses, the way breath might be taken. That’s all really, really fascinating to me.” When she’s teaching, she tries to create a corollary to visual language in much the same way: “What does it mean to literally punctuate a drawing, in a way that you would take a sentence that essentially had no meaning, and make it comprehensible?” she asks her students. “Through timing, and space, and rhythm, and breath.”

All of which connects to physical movement, another practice Meanley credits with fueling her creative process. Long walks with her dog in the woods spark marathon writing sessions, which then engender drawings and paintings.

In the last year, her writing sessions have taken on new importance, Meanley says. Writing “is a way for me to deepen my personal exploration of my own psychic space, which is the origins of the paintings as well.” Though she doesn’t intend to publish these writings, Meanley is open to the possibility of including some of her words in new paintings. “I think the world that I’m exploring has to do with the idea of psychological interiority and how that can find representation” through words and images. In the meantime, the kinetic activity of walking continues to fire her imagination.

It has also attuned Meanley to the natural environment of the South, so different from what surrounded her in New Hampshire, where she grew up, and where she also earned her BFA at the University of New Hampshire, or even at Indiana University, where she received her MFA. In and around Greensboro, she finds nature so lush, so green, so impressive. “I started realizing that there’s this battle within the landscape. Just to even maintain my yard, I feel like I’m battling the natural growth here. It did amplify that sense of tension, of creating landscape as a narrative event . . .  as an important space to contemplate hierarchies of power.”

Summer, with its time away from the demands of academia, provides Meanley with more time for outdoor exploration and for contemplations of all kinds. She’s also looking forward to having time to tackle larger works, with the hope of a solo exhibition later this year or in 2024. “Doing a solo show is an endeavor,” she says. “Right now I’m gearing up.”  OH

This is an excerpt from Art of the State: Celebrating the Art of North Carolina, published by UNC Press.