Contemporary realist artist Jennifer Chalklen talks about her art
Singapore-based, New Zealand born Jennifer Chalklen is a contemporary realist artist who is mostly self-taught. Her works are a journey into whimsy, delicate and beautiful, reflective and poignant.
Jennifer developed a strong interest in realistic portraiture during her five years of living in Jakarta, Indonesia. Despite the chaos and abject poverty, Jennifer observed a quiet pulse of connectedness through acts of kindness, cultural nuances and the Islamic religious practices, which acted as an antidote to the disorder of the city, and an identity of togetherness within diversity.
Her works display symbolism and imagery which act as a conjoint to invisible concepts that contain reflections of beauty, and act as visual explanations that are relatable across communication barriers.
This is what it looks like when grit meets creation…
As a self-taught artist, what made you choose the cool contemporary genre to represent your style of art?
I guess I never really consciously decided on a particular genre or theme, I just went ahead and experimented with a bunch of different ideas and through a massive volume of work, a consistent theme began to emerge. It gradually turned into a voice that felt like it belonged to me. Through that process I learnt the tools to effectively describe an inner landscape and project it into something physical through the act of touch onto the canvas. To me, my work has more questions than answers, the concepts remain unresolved but each work holds clues, even the unsuccessful ones that I carry forward to my next pieces. Basically, it’s like an excruciatingly slow, never ending jigsaw puzzle.
“To me, my work has more questions than answers, the concepts remain unresolved but each work holds clues…”
What is your creative process like?
I catch glimpses of imagery in my peripheral and on the edge of dreams, which I try to screenshot in my brain and capture on the canvas before they begin to dissolve in waking life. I work with reference images, some images that I find and blend together, or I photograph myself if I can’t find the correct image, then I intuitively work out the composition around it throughout the painting process — often the composition changes several times until I feel happy with it.
“I catch glimpses of imagery in my peripheral and on the edge of dreams, which I try to screenshot in my brain and capture on the canvas before they begin to dissolve in waking life.”
I work with a lot of thin glazes that produce a translucent or dreamlike quality. Some works are completed within a few weeks, but I often continue to work on them for months. I like to work intensely for about a week, then I allow the work to ‘breathe’, while I consider it and decide whether I need to develop it further or make any bold changes to the composition if I don’t feel balanced when observing it.
“I work with a lot of thin glazes that produce a translucent or dreamlike quality.”
I like to work on two paintings at the same time, so my work often comes out in pairs, the reason behind this is methodical in terms of drying times, but also prevents the work from becoming too crowded from forcing too many ideas into a single work, and allows me to work on something else when I get stuck and can’t switch off, but need to move my mind onto something else.
Which is your favourite art space in the world? Where have you lived before?
I love the de Young Museum in San Francisco — the integration of art and landscape is beautiful and the energy of the works are imposing with the amount of history attached to the collections.
I was born in New Zealand and as a kid I grew up in a fairly rural area on a hobby farm with a fruit orchard and pet cows that would sometimes wander into our living room, which was starkly different to my lifestyle when I moved to Jakarta around 2010, which was a hot mess, and really difficult to find open green spaces, blue sky and clean air. I currently live in Singapore which is very clean, organised and quite lush.
Does where you live affect what you paint?
Definitely, after I travel to New Zealand, greens and blues creep into my work. It’s hard not to be affected by the landscape there because it is just so beautiful. Living in Jakarta was predominantly Muslim so I think that affected my composition around including headscarves on the women in my work. I don’t subscribe to any particular religion despite growing up in a fairly conservative Christian environment, but I did enjoy observing Islam during my time there, the city was absolutely chaotic on the surface, but it had its own rhythm and flow, and a lot of kindness — people who were just willing to work together to help each other out. The city taught me a lot of humility and grace… and patience.
“… after I travel to New Zealand, greens and blues creep into my work. It’s hard not to be affected by the landscape there because it is just so beautiful.”
“I Look For You, Still”, Mixed media on canvas, 2019
“Living in Jakarta was predominantly Muslim so I think that affected my composition around including headscarves on the women in my work.”
My current studio is in my apartment and it’s the most natural light-filled space I have worked in, so the quality is better, and more vibrant colour is coming through onto the canvas. I also have a garden attached to my studio which has been inspiring my composition and colour palette in interesting ways. My last studio in Singapore was in the attic of a shophouse, which was beautiful, but the designs of those old buildings are notoriously dark with fluorescent lighting so it affected my work in a way that the figures appeared more washed out and ghostly, perhaps more sombre.
“I also have a garden attached to my studio which has been inspiring my composition and colour palette in interesting ways.”
What do you think it takes to create hyper-realistic art?
I don’t think I am really aiming for hyperrealism but something closer to classical realism. I’m currently trying to lean into something that is a bit more gestural and painterly rather than painting each hair, lash or pore. I do really admire this skill when artists are able to catch that amount of detail, but for my work I need to draw the line somewhere between what I’m actually trying to say with my work and hyperrealism. I am constantly trying to figure out where the point of diminishing returns is, i.e. if I paint each individual hair, does this add something more to what I’m trying to say in this work? Does it add more depth? Or is it just a more visually accurate duplication of the reference image. You can be a very good painter and copy a photograph almost down to the pixel and not be an artist and vice versa. I feel that there has to be some form of risk or visual editing to make the work honest through an artist’s lens.
“I don’t think I am really aiming for hyperrealism but something closer to classical realism.”
What’s next for Jennifer Chalklen?
At the moment I’m working on a few commissions which I’m trading for overseas holidays in gorgeous locations. Next stop Maldives! So feeling pretty lucky. I have a few group shows lined up over the next few months and hoping to start to think about another solo show next year, if I can balance it alongside commissioned work, supplying galleries, kid wrangling and life in general. I always love looking out and finding little surprises along the way, other artists, collaborations and interesting opportunities — life’s little magic, so let’s just wait and see..