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Q & A: Cortez thoroughly enjoys painting-in-painting concept

Sunday, July 3, 2011
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Painter Jenness Cortez incorporates great artists’ works in her own creations. Cortez’s work is the subject of a new book, “Homage to the Creative Spirit: The Paintings of Jenness Cortez,” by Karen Rechnitzer Pope.
Painter Jenness Cortez incorporates great artists’ works in her own creations. Cortez’s work is the subject of a new book, “Homage to the Creative Spirit: The Paintings of Jenness Cortez,” by Karen Rechnitzer Pope.

Painter Jenness Cortez has admired the great artists of the Western world since she was a young girl. But it wasn’t until five years ago that she decided to honor them, one by one, by including their masterpieces in her own paintings.

Van Gogh’s “Starry Night,” Winslow Homer’s “Snap the Whip” and Monet’s “Morning With Willows” are just a few of the dozens of iconic images that she has appropriated for her own realist paintings. In these painting-within-a-painting works, the famous images are set in a contemporary interior — over a sofa in a living room, above a bookcase or a fireplace mantel — and objects in the scene reflect the subject matter. For example, a bottle of whisky and an elegant bowl of peanuts-in-the-shell appear in “The Prize,” her tribute to “Stag at Sharkey’s,” a 1909 fighting scene by George Bellows.

About the book

“Homage to the Creative Spirit: The Paintings of Jenness Cortez” by Karen Rechnitzer Pope ($40 for open edition, $125 for signed, limited edition) is available at www.cortezart.com, at Amazon.com, at Barnes & Noble and at The Book House at Stuyvesant Plaza in Albany. Cortez will give a lecture and sign books at 2 p.m. Sunday, Sept. 18, at Albany Institute of History & Art. Her Classic Gallery and Studio in Averill Park is open daily by appointment by calling 674-8711.

The Averill Park artist’s current creative venture is also the subject of a new book, “Homage to the Creative Spirit: The Paintings of Jenness Cortez” by Karen Rechnitzer Pope, an art history professor at Baylor University. The 128-page hardcover book, which was published in April, features 62 color reproductions of Cortez’s paintings. On the facing page, each image is accompanied by Pope’s insights on the famous artist’s work and Cortez’s interpretation of it.

Born in Indiana, Cortez started studying art at age 16. She graduated from Herron School of Art in Indianapolis and studied at the Art Students League of New York.

From 1977 to 1997, she was best known for her paintings of champion thoroughbreds and the Saratoga scene, as her Classic Gallery of Sporting Art appeared each summer at the Holiday Inn in Saratoga Springs during racing season.

After departing the sporting art world, she focused on meditative landscapes in the tradition of 19th century Hudson River painters and Barbizon School painters.

Her artworks are in the private collections of Presidents Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton, Queen Elizabeth II, Marylou Whitney, Gov. George Pataki and Gov. Hugh Carey and are held in the permanent collections of the New York State Museum, Skidmore College and SUNY Empire State College.

The 66-year-old Cortez has had more than 40 solo exhibits, including shows at the New York Historical Society, the Schenectady Museum, the Albany Institute of History & Art and New York State Museum. She is represented by galleries in Texas, Maryland and Florida.

For 15 years, she and her husband and business manager, Leonard Perlmutter, have also operated the American Meditation Institute, an organization they founded to teach yoga and meditation.

Q: How did you come up with this idea of paying homage to iconic paintings from the history of art?

A: It evolved slowly, and it’s something I’ve been doing all my life. We found, Len and I, that the paintings that really seemed to strike a deep note with people were the ones that had a painting within a painting. The fact that people can see the painting as a window into something else is an important part of what they like about it. To Karen, whose background is in art history, that’s the most important thing. That’s how we met her. She found the pieces on the Internet and was excited about them.

Q: Has the painting-within-a-painting technique been used by other artists?

A: It was done from the very start. In oil painting, you might see it in the painting of Jan van Eyck in the 1400s. He used other paintings in his paintings to great effect. And Vermeer — his mother-in-law was an art dealer — in at least half of his paintings you can see another painting.

Q:How did you select the masterpieces that you used in your images?

A: They are all paintings that mean something to me. They are all paintings that excite my visual sensibilities or their subject matter is of interest to me. The painting is almost always the first part, the germ of the painting that I do. It can take a lot of different forms. Some of them are interiors and some of them are still lifes. Some are handled almost as collage and in others the painting is a more subtle part of my presentation. So, it varies. I have used some paintings more than once and used them in different ways in my own composition. I always have more ideas than I have time to paint.

Q: In many of the paintings, there are books and one can read the titles. Why is that?

A: I enjoy using words in the paintings. It’s my theory that it involves both the right and the left brain of the viewer. And that’s part of what’s interesting about them. It’s not just something the viewer can look at and then look away if they are not a visual person. There’s always something that pulls them back. Or it can lead to ideas in a way that people who are not deeply visual can respond. I have a good time with all these different references, putting together the things that are spurred in my own mind by an image by another artist. I have done this occasionally since I was an adolescent. I have had fun with it. It has become most of what I’ve been doing the last five years.

Q: Have you seen these masterpieces at museums?

A: Yes, I have seen a lot of these paintings. Not all of them, though. But we are very fortunate, all of us, because of the beautiful reproductions that are available. The ones I haven’t seen, I still have a sense of them.

Q: As you are painting, do you have prints or reproductions or books at your side?

A: I do. I have been interested in art for as long as I can remember, so I have gathered a lot of information about the lives of these artists and the social and cultural situation into which these paintings appeared. So it’s not that I have to do research on a specific piece. I have a pretty good idea about the whole world surrounding the painting before I start.

Q: What’s in your studio now?

A: I am working on two pieces. One is a commissioned piece, and it is a Renoir painting with an abundant still life below it. It’s a very big painting for a very big house. I’m also working on another piece for my own interest and will be sending it to a gallery. The painting in the painting is Jan van Eyck’s “Arnolfini Marriage.” I’m finding myself very interested in Van Eyck, not the man himself, but the extraordinary way in which he saw the world for the time in which he lived. I think he really defined the way Western European culture saw itself at that time. That’s something I’m really interested in, how art reflects or is the product of or influences the world view of a certain time and place.

Q: The paintings are oil or acrylic on mahogany panel. Why is that?

A: I enjoy working on a hard surface. These particular panels, they are made of mahogany, but that’s not what interests me. It’s the process by which they are grounded that brings up the texture that I have come to enjoy working on.

Q: Why is there a clock in many of the paintings?

A: The clock, with its reference to time, with its reference to mortality, with its reference to memory and expectation. It’s all that. When someone sees a clock, it rivets their attention in a very personal way, something deeper than what they recognize intellectually.

Q: Bill Clinton and Queen Elizabeth have your artworks in their collections. Could you describe those works?

A: Queen Elizabeth owns a painting that was given to her by the Thoroughbred Club of America in 1984. And it is a painting that was commissioned. It’s a painting of a horse with her racing silks in the paddock at Keeneland race course. It was given to her when she visited Keeneland in 1984. Bill Clinton has an etching that was given to him by Wilma Mankiller, who was the first female chief of the Cherokee Nation.

 
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