There is an unspoken anxiety within the small paintings of Jen Corace. Like our day to day experiences, we are not privy to the personal history that creates internal conflict within others, but we may catch glimpses or be vaguely aware of what some of these moments look like. Corace creates hypothetical memories or fantasies that mimic our tendency to imagine danger or conversely safety in the face of uncertainty. The scenes created do not rely on a linear framework, as experience, memory and fantasy become too confused to do so. It is perhaps for this reason that Corace's most recent series, Monsters by Land, Monsters by Sea, and Swept to Sea, primarily depict the young and the old as they are representations of formative encounters themselves, and the bearers of these experiences.
Corace is certainly not the first to deal with these ideas, but her approach is very 21st century, in that it reflects the now commonly accepted Jungian philosophy that the unconscious is a means for the mind to enable self discovery through personal symbolism. We don't know why the child in Red Tide is swimming in roses and while you can guess that they symbolize love, or as Greek mythology might suggest, a loss of innocence, they could just as easily be a prop from a personal narrative. The solution to interpreting this kind of uncertainty is to either to imbue it with some sort unsettling emotional ambiguity, or to do what viewers have been doing for centuries, and draw your own meaning from the imagery. Taking the latter path, I decide the red tide was the calm after the storm, and content myself with that.
Not being one to think about the possible symbolic meanings of objects of paintings, without also considering how to contextualize the work, formally, Corace's work tends to draw influence from 17th and 19th century Japanese woodcuts. In particular, those within the genre of Ukiyo-e, (which roughly translated means “floating world”), typically featuring motifs of landscapes, the theater and erotic vignettes have a close relationship with this work.
Water scenes in the series Swept to Sea reference a stylistic device invented by Katsushika Hokusai, (the wave image featured above), which has been recycled by many contemporary artists, among them, Yoshitomo Nara. Not surprisingly, it is also not much of a stretch to it find a connection between the work of Nara and Corace.
In fact, in addition to Yoshitomo Nara, the work has a relationship with a myriad of contemporary artists and illustrators working today that include Takashi Murakami, Jill Simonsen, Chris Ware, and Adam Simpson to name just a few. The work even pays homage to Madeline, a popular book series of the fifties by author and illustrator Ludwig Bemelmans.
Corace has maintained a consistent stylistic approach in her work so the relationship to contemporary and Ukiyo-e artists mentioned above has remained pretty much constant over the years. What has changed recently is the level of complexity within the work. The psychology of the child has become much more nuanced and developed than some of the earlier portraits, part of this having to do with change of compositional choices. As Autumn and Red Tide demonstrate, the integration of figure and landscape create a greater field for the thematic of security to play out. Employing a combination of line, form, and color, Autumn provides a variety of cloaks within the picture plane that could be used at will by the child.
It goes without saying that the Marigold, Calendula series evokes a greater sense of safety than those using water, and I bring it up, not as an effort to bring back redundancy in features, but because it demonstrates a visible connection between the artist's stated intent outlined at the beginning of this piece and her execution. Failure on the part of the artist to meet their own goals is a sign of an artist or body of work that has yet to mature. The art of Jen Corace brilliantly meets her stated intent, revealing beauty within the awkward naivety of adolescence.