Artist Interview: Jill O'Bryan

Zane Bennett Contemporary Art
Oct 21, 2022 5:46PM

In celebration of her solo exhibition, Breathing with the Elements, at Zane Bennett Contemporary Art in Santa Fe, Jill O'Bryan sits down for an interview with Gallery Director, Jordan Eddy, to speak about material, process and connection to place in her artistic practice.

Jill O'Bryan
Breathing into the Moon #19, 2022
Zane Bennett Contemporary Art

Jordan Eddy (JE): So where do you want to start?

Jill O'Bryan (JO): Let's start with Breathing into the Moon. These paintings are made in the moonlight when the moon is full, high above, rising or setting, and waxing or waning. I meditate outside, while focusing on the moon and the images come to me, then I paint them. They have a relationship to the breath drawings that I used to do, while visualizing a connection to the moon. I’ve always felt a deep connection to the moon, which became more profound during the pandemic.

JE: What do you mean when you say the images come to you?

JO: The process is like lucid dreaming. Normally, I clear the mind and focus on breath, but images started appearing in my mind’s eye while meditating in moonlight, so I began drawing them in sketchbooks. It felt like I tapped into a connection with moonlight that I had been nurturing for years.

JE: Aesthetically, Breathing into the Moon, as a series, is relatively understated. It’s like my eyes sink into them. Does that feel like an important quality for your work? How do you make sure to not push it too far?

JO: I have to stay true to the images in the meditation, which are soft, so I render them quietly, and in layers. They are subtle paintings—and subtle is often a critical term. I heard that in grad school. My advisor was Sam Tchakalian, who said, “Why subtle? That's women’s painting. Become bold!” At the end of graduate school, when I was making big, messy, dark abstract paintings, he shook my hand and said, “Congratulations. You finally learned how to paint like a man.”

JE: Do you remember how that made you feel at the time?

JO: I was absolutely horrified for having capitulated to this macho academic pressure. People laugh at this story. But for me, it meant I had to start over.

A delicate detail of Breathing Into the Moon #7, 2022, Watercolor, acrylic, and pencil on Bhutan Mitsumata rice paper 11.5 x 11.5 in (framed)

Jill O'Bryan
Breathing into the Moon #7, 2022
Zane Bennett Contemporary Art

JE: Graduate school is such a pressure cooker, and then you move out into the river delta of your career, and you wonder, where do I go now? How did you unwind that?

JO: I worked hard to get the critical voices out of my head. Integrating meditation into my work helped to eliminate them and allowed me to find my own voice.

JE: These pieces, in particular, remind me so much of transcendental work. In retrospect, is this work representative of the development of an abstract language of sorts?

JO: I understand that the process could be interpreted as transcendental, but I do not see the work this way. The paintings carry the essence of my visual experience, and I am not trying to create a visual language.

I sent photos of the Breathing with the Moon paintings to a friend who got it immediately: “There’s so much space in them!” They are layered with pencil lines and paint, yet translucent in places and opaque in others, because they are made on rice paper. They reflect my actions of breathing into the moon over time. I see the space in them as temporal space.

JE: Speaking of temporal space, tell me about the fleeting micro-geographies in your long-running series of frottages.

JO: The frottages (rock rubbings) are made by laying big pieces of paper down on the land. First I roll around on top of the paper to make it conform to the shape of the land and then I draw on it with large graphite rocks. In New Mexico I began to understand how the sky comes all the way down to the ground. The frottages are recordings of the space where the sky touches the land. In this space of elemental meeting the sky creates the shape of the land, it’s formed by the wind, rain, snow and hail. In the desert, the water is in the sky.

JE: You know, if we consider that idea of the sky reaching all the way down, we can even connect back to moonlight! Does it feel like in a way, by doing this drawing with the frottage process, you’re capturing another little layer of light?

JO: Absolutely. I’m pulling the texture up from below the paper and recording the light hitting the paper at the same time; it’s the interaction between the two. It’s exciting to make these at such a large scale. It’s a physical process and as I’m pulling the image out, I’m acutely aware of rendering land that has a deep history and is also currently cradling me. I’m just a facilitator, a guest in this space, on this land. When I first started coming to New Mexico, I was overwhelmed by the desert, but as soon as I lay down on the paper, I knew exactly what I had to do. I made a drawing and I thought, “I know how to go about creating a relationship with this land–by feeling it!"

Jill O'Bryan
nm.5.21, 2021
Zane Bennett Contemporary Art
Jill O'Bryan
nm.1.22, 2022
Zane Bennett Contemporary Art

Detail of nm.1.22, 2022, Graphite on paper, 96 x 60 in (Sold)

JE: These feel so different from a lot of work made in or about the Southwest. There’s a quote from Georgia O’Keeffe about Mount Pedernal, which I’ll paraphrase: “If I painted this mountain enough, God told me I would own it.” That sentiment feels quite colonial. There’s something different about entering this landscape as an outsider right at ground level and without leaving a lasting mark, as your approach suggests. Though modernism’s such a common entry point into thinking about Southwestern history, there are thousands of years that precede that, which is something that takes years to understand as an outsider. I wonder how connecting with that history has factored into your process?

JO: My work comes from a desire to be present where I am in this landscape—to experience it on the deepest level possible—to gain an intimate understanding of the sensibility of the desert and to communicate it to others through the drawings and paintings. I’m influenced by Buddhist teachings and interested in the notion of reciprocity with the land. I learned in Robin Wall Kimmerer’s book Braiding Sweetgrass, that even learning the names of the plants is a form of reciprocity because familiarizing yourself with the particulars of the land gives you greater awareness and respect for it. All of the work in this exhibition is a form of familiarization meant to engage others in an intimate relationship with the land. Having said this, I am also acutely aware that in New Mexico we are all living and working on unceded Indigenous land. This fact is not even considered in modernism.

JE: Right, it’s sort of all in the mix. Whether we’re making art, or curating, we’re doing so in an Indigenous context on unceded land. I guess what’s so interesting to me about this work is that these are some of your largest scale pieces, but it feels like you’re using those to create a micro-topography to understand something as opposed to inventing some claim to the land.

JO: Absolutely, I’m trying to expand my intuitive relationship with the land. On top of the mesa where I work, billions of years before me, it was a beach. The layers of history are tangible, the people who’ve lived there, died there and have given birth there; I find arrowheads and fish fossils and remnants of stone fireplaces, and so I want to acknowledge and honor the previous inhabitants. When I’m lying down on the land making these drawings, I become familiar with every little rock and insect, tiny plant, and the different textures of the sand and adobe. It’s an active interaction and the drawings reflect these microcosms that are also markers of history and time.

JE: I think that idea of being in active relation with the land really comes through in the frottage drawings. How did you end up selecting the two that are included in the exhibition?

JO: One of them was made on a rock that I’ve returned to over the years, and every drawing I make there is different. The other is made on terrain with less rock and some softer soil. While drawing, I’m consciously choosing where to pull out the texture and where to stop, depending on what I can feel coming up from underneath the paper. The negative space I leave is where the light enters the drawing.

JE: It’s an honor to have them in the space! When we step back and look at the palette of this show, there’s a lot of textural, black-and-white work that’s consistent with your drawing practice, but there’s also so much blue! Blue is statistically humanity’s favorite color. Were you swept away by the electric charge that blue can bring?

JO: It might seem like I went from graphite to blue, but previously I did a series of paintings called Element Paintings in which I appropriated the colors of Buddhist prayer flags. Blue is the sky, white is wind and air, red is fire, green is water and yellow is earth. I wanted to transform the pigment into the prayer, so I saturated rice paper with layers and layers of watercolor pigment. The idea is, once again, to connect with nature in a way that’s meaningful, visually celebratory, and in a way that also has a sentiment of reciprocity and thankfulness to it. The two blue paintings titled Breathing into the Sky came from the same reverent place. Every element of my work is considered, so the color blue is not just chosen because the sky is sometimes blue. It is the color iconography in Buddhist prayer flags. As it also is in the blue-and-white moon paintings.

Jill O'Bryan
Breathing into the Sky #10, 2022
Zane Bennett Contemporary Art
Jill O'Bryan
Breathing into Sky #11, 2022
Zane Bennett Contemporary Art

JO: These moon and sky paintings come directly out of the frottage process. When I’m out on the land making these huge rubbings, I first put down the paper, then lie on it. Then, while looking straight up into the sky, I meditate—just looking into that endless blue light—the sky, it seems to go on forever but also reaches down into me. The images started coming when I began focusing on the moon during these meditations. They seemed to come out of nowhere. It felt like a gift.

The same strong desire to connect with this place comes through the photographs in the exhibition. I take hundreds of photos of the land I work on. The vistas of New Mexico can be so vast that, for me, the way to create a photographic relationship is by rendering the intimate spaces as I experience them.

JE: Your photography series in particular was exciting to present in a Santa Fe gallery because we have such a strong history of paintings. It feels like vistas are supposed to be some depiction of “the best” landscape. To have works that actually feel almost diametrically opposed to that, but are still talking about an experience of the land, is powerful. What guided your selections of the photographic imagery?

JO: Most of the photographs have a plant to centrally anchor the composition. But they’re also incredibly varied in terms of place, and plant life. Some of the photographed plants are dead; the dead Juniper trees are amazing to me—sculptural and full of individuality and a material, or elemental historicity.

Jill O'Bryan
Mesa #39, 2017
Zane Bennett Contemporary Art

JE: Looking at them, there really is subtle but incredible variety. It’s a millionlittle views of a place, but you can tell it’s from the same place, right? Even the single color photograph! To have just a little piece of that blue sky... that image is perfect.

JO:Ah yes, the color photograph with the moon even in the bright blue sky, totallyreal in its scale, not overblown and never overlooked.

Detail of Jill O'Bryan, Mesa 59, 2022, Archival pigment print, 14.5 x 14.5 in (framed), Ed. of 3 plus 1 AP

Breathing with the Elements closed at Zane Bennett Contemporary Art on September 3, 2022 with a review published in Artforum by Dan Beachy-Quick in the October print issue.

Zane Bennett Contemporary Art