The Artsy Vanguard 2021: Esther Janssen
“I think I traumatized myself when I was really young,” Esther Janssen said. “I got this oil paint set from my father—who was a painter as well—and tried to copy Monet’s garden as my first painting ever when I was eight or seven. And I thought: ‘This looks so bad. I cannot paint. I’m not a painter.’ I decided that very early based on one painting, and somehow this stuck with me.”
Fast forward and Janssen has proven her prepubescent self wrong. Since graduating from the Design Academy Eindhoven in 2000, the Dutch artist has exhibited paintings throughout the Netherlands, and this fall, she garnered international attention thanks to a sold-out solo show at Unit London. Though she’s swapped oil for acrylic and ditched Monet mimicry, the garden has remained in her focus.
At a distance, her signature landscapes look like digital paintings or hand-painted imitations thereof, all flat planes and crisp shadows. But as you get closer (or zoom in), you discover there’s something more interesting at play. In a kind of reverse trompe l’oeil, individual pieces of artificial leather are cut, painted, layered, sewn down, and occasionally stuffed to create twilight renderings of soulless suburbia that appear two-dimensional.
Janssen’s is a blue-green world of perfect hedges reflected in placid ponds; identikit houses and manicured lawns lit up by floodlight-bright streetlamps. Her communities are vacant, but not abandoned; a human presence unseen but implied by their standardized tidiness. “It’s such a magical theater in a sense,” she said over a video call from her studio in Maastricht, a medieval town in the south of the Netherlands. “I like the fact that light is a creator and a shadow seems like a disrupter, but it’s all intertwined and they need each other.”
In these works, which Janssen calls “sewn paintings,” the artificial leather carries the message as much as the scenes she’s painting on it, mirroring the artificiality and suffocation of the communities she creates, and speaking to man’s mission to one-up nature.
Janssen first started experimenting with artificial leather in 2000, during her final year at the Design Academy Eindhoven, after coming across a roll of “almost pornographic” pink, flesh-like fabric in a thrift shop. “I didn’t know what to do with it, but I thought, ‘I must have it’; it’s so peculiar,” she said.
Eventually, that turned into her graduate project: a minimalistic sewn house, complete with a picket fence and walkway. The home, she says, had always been a point of fascination. As a child, she would make her own primitive houses, and as a teenager, when her father moved to a clean-cut village in Belgium, she took photographs of the pristine homes and lawns that surrounded her—the product of fastidious maintenance. Over time, she noticed the conifer hedges and wooden fences being replaced by plastic clones. Neighbors started vacuuming their front yards.
“That triggered something in me. I already thought these gardens, which are so personal for people, looked so standardized, and now they’ve taken the next step in low maintenance,” she said. “The house is such a symbol of an ideal, and people want to make it perfect. But this perfection has gone too far.…[My work explores] this discrepancy between the designed ideal and how far we take that.”
Her style grew from eclectic influences: the tonal colors of graphic novelist Chris Ware; the disorienting perspectives of Hokusai and Hiroshige; David Hockney’s lifelong dedication to experimentation and landscapes. (“He said he’s after the ‘spatial thrill’ and that’s something I recognize myself as well,” Janssen said.) And then there’s David Lynch, with whom she shares a penchant for the quietly disturbing: “I was 14 when I saw Twin Peaks, and I loved the atmosphere, and I loved the way he could suggest this threat with very few elements and a bit of sound,” she said. “It really hit me.”
Resigned to the fact that a sculptural practice would quickly overwhelm the studio space at her disposal, Janssen turned her focus to digital paintings after graduation, making the most of the Photoshop skills she’d been developing since the late ’90s. But eventually, she came to miss the physical act of making, and started experimenting with new ways to manipulate artificial leather. Though she has made traditional paintings on linen, and still uses Photoshop to sketch out her sewn paintings (all the fun of experimenting with color, light, and layers with none of the wasted fabric), she said: “I’m really a physical person in the sense that I am at my best when I can work with my hands and their own logic.”
She paints the base layer of finely pebbled “leather” with the basic backdrop before cutting out and painting individual shapes (groups of trees, a lamppost) to layer on top of it. The sewing can take up to a month to complete on its own and is brutal on the wrists, but she bristles at the idea of asking for help. Between the initial sketch and the completed work, “there are so many decisions and changes I make,” she said. “It’s not a blueprint that I can hand out to someone.…I also like the human side of it; I like that the output is limited.
“A lot of people say, ‘You should get assistants,’ but I just love what I’m doing,” Janssen continued. “I’m a very solitary person, and I love to be in this [state of] concentration.…It would take out what is most meaningful to me, what I enjoy most: being by myself and being lost [in the work].”
This isn’t to say that Janssen is stuck in her ways. Recently, years of repetitive strain from sewing have led her to develop a new fastening technique that simulates the look of stitches through the application of miniscule pins, allowing her to complete her works in (slightly) less time, but with considerably less physical strain. “I like the fact that [my work] is sewn because it’s such an old, feminine, timeless thing to do,” she said “But now I’m veering towards a new elaborated technique that gives me much more possibility with scale.”
Indeed, Janssen’s ultimate ambition is to go big, creating a life-size garden made of artificial leather. “I’m not too much into fashion, but I sometimes watch these Chanel shows online.…Those sets? How they design them? That’s like a dream,” she said. “[To do that], but in a museum, I think that would be so spectacular.”
The Artsy Vanguard 2021
The Artsy Vanguard is our annual feature recognizing the most promising artists working today. This fourth edition of The Artsy Vanguard is a triumphant new chapter, as we present an in-person exhibition in Miami featuring the 20 artists’ works, including many available to collect on Artsy. Curated by Erin Jenoa Gilbert, sponsored by MNTN, and generously supported by Mana Public Arts, the show is located at 555 NW 24th Street, Miami, and is open to the public from December 2nd through 5th, 12–6 p.m.
Header and thumbnail image: Portrait of Esther Janssen. Courtesy of Esther Janssen.