My Friend, Jennifer White

For close to ten years I have followed Jennifer White as an artist; she has developed from a promising young painter into an artist who is approaching middle age and has become a solid skilled practitioner who can delight and amaze on any given day. Jennifer maintains a studio in the basement of the Last Stop CD store on East Tenth Street; the studio is a large salon where works in progress and finished work are hastily hung on the wall, a place where the public is welcome to show up and take a look. You never know what you’re going to find and the work on any given day can be uneven in quality, broad in subject matter and full of delightful surprises.

Jennifer struggles with her artistic identity. She rightly demands that she be seen in the context of contemporary art taken in the broadest strokes. Her work can stand beside the work of any contemporary artist from any city, culture or movement and does not depend on any cultural identifier to define its strength or meaning. As an artist she want to be judged without the weight of culture, education or identity politics. Yet she is a woman, an Arikara Indian, a mother of six children, married to a man of Scandinavian descent, who lives a very middle class life in Sioux Falls. Jennifer’s father and his people hail from the Fort Berthold reservation in west central North Dakota. Her mother and her people are Lakota from South Dakota. Jennifer chooses to self-identify as Arikara. Placing Jennifer and her work in a defining cultural context is a fool’s errand.

A couple of months ago Jennifer sent me a message to stop by her studio, she had some new work that she was excited to share with me. She had painted around eight pieces, all abstract landscape like forms that really are exceptional. In these particular paintings, Jennifer has married several strains that existed separately in her prior work, into a whole that created a new more complete expression; a direction she had been making tentative steps toward. On the one hand, these paintings are abstracts where shapes, colors and the visible actions of brushstrokes and paint movement combine to make a surprising but satisfying visual experience. Secondly these painting look like landscapes, aerial landscapes, where you can sense Great Plains landforms, you can imagine rows of dwellings and other structures, boundaries between nature and man-made sections. And last, in certain passages of paint you can imagine reference to the kind of mark making that occurred by artists on animal skins like those done by her ancestors. Complicated stuff that I’m loathed to try to define tightly but deeply satisfying to look at and think about.I bug Jennifer about her carelessness with materials and technique. I can’t stand that she buys ready-made inexpensive canvasas and uses cheap acrylic paint. I want her to work with materials that are worthy of her talent. To that end, I proposed that Jennifer commit to doing a show of new large abstract paintings at Piper Arts. Piper Arts would front hand made stretchers covered in high quality canvas and provide framing for some of the finished works. Jennifer had been experimenting with oil paints and some of the paintings would be oil paint over an acrylic base. We are all excited to see these new painting develop; a new imagery, high quality materials, and an exciting context to view the work in. It’s all set, the show is scheduled for mid-May, the canvases are stretched and primed and Jennifer is working.

-Russ McKnight