Rebecca Ness

“In 2020, Rebecca Ness painted I See You, a self-portrait in her studio. She appears in the lower-left corner, behind a table that cantilevers out into the space. If we inevitably focus on her face first, true to a consensual hierarchy that puts people before objects, we’re nevertheless then led along the table – past the Norman Rockwell and Kerry James Marshall books, scribbly notepads, pot of brushes and portraits on paper, and down to a wooden floor. The latter is covered in (among other things) paint tubes, canvases awaiting stretching, palettes, sneakers, and a switched-on MacBook; plus elements that, in the context of a painting, feel like brushstrokes themselves – strips of coloured tape, orange-and-black squiggles of power cords. More paintings on the walls. Though this is a sanctioned peep into the artist’s chaotic lair, there’s nevertheless something a little voyeuristic about it; Ness, even as she paints herself – hair up in a casual bun – looks faintly surprised to be seen, as if by someone other than us, the invited guests.  

Indeed, on one level that was probably true. This painting was made when Ness began receiving artworld attention; and the contemporary artworld, as we know, is interested in the personalities and opinions of artists, which can feel to come as a package-deal with the art. I See You is, in this regard, a model of looking back on the part of the observed, serving back the gaze. We see her, she sees us, plus she chooses to let us see her. This is what it’s really like, the painter’s life, the artwork says. Art does not spring forth from the artist’s forehead in a pristine, focus-directing studio. It’s made on the hoof in a morphing context amid both distraction and influence; the laptop, an umbilical to the outside world, is in here alongside all this romantic painterly stuff, and so are books on artists whose practice has shaped Ness’s own. (Not always revered artists, either, the Rockwell book attests.) Meanwhile, current events impinge. The glowing orange-brown floor of the studio bows calamitously, ripples like a wave, in a way that might recall David Hockney’s photo-collages but, in the context of a work made in 2020, also suggests the disorienting effects of Corona Time – a moment which Ness here presents herself as navigating as best she can; being in the studio, getting on with it. Note her position, too. She’s low down in the canvas, not higher up than the viewer, just another person, for all her apparent skilfulness.  

That’s one reading of the relationship between this canvas and the phrase ‘I See You’. Another, by Ness’s own account, is that the painting was made when she was able to see her girlfriend again after an absence, which wouldn’t be notable except that Ness is an artist who lets her life suffuse her art. She paints her friends, her relationships, her environment – with, as we’ll see, good reason. But we might also map significance onto I See You from the way Ness paints. Look again. Ness delivers up objects, environments, and herself in a way that suggests they’re being attentively looked at. Her colours are amplified, almost like a digital animation based on live video, and almost all the items in I See You’s bazaar-like visual field are painted with equal vividness: when your eye moves over the canvas, it’s like everything is lighting up in turn under your gaze; this is all-over figurative painting. A stapler is invested with as much gravity, it seems, as one of Ness’s paintings of her own paintings, or the laptop. I see you, the artist says to each one in turn; then we, roaming of eye, get to say it too.   

Now, this reading is partly historically constituted. Ness, during her studies, was struck by the central theses of Object-Oriented Ontology, the post-Kantian postulate that objects have an inner life inaccessible to humans. We can’t know either way, but Ness adopts a version of Pascal’s wager, painting as if it were true. If her paintings are full of quotidian event, it allows her to transvalue all kinds of voiceless things. Family Basement, for example – though likely composed, in Ness’s characteristic fashion, as a digital collage of images before becoming a painting – is a satisfying tumble of materials that’ve been stuffed downstairs without much thought, normally out of sight and mind: U-Haul archive boxes, cleaning materials, a stuffed fish, bicycle, an old canvas. At the upper left corner, some sneakered feet place the painting in time: someone, in this visual game, is coming downstairs to give all of this forgotten detritus some attention. (Someone, clearly, already has.) If the artist’s close looking makes you look closely too, then you might notice a stowed Easter Egg. Tucked at an angle next to some detergent on a shelf is a sliver of mirror, which in turn reflects the canvas facing away from us so that we can see a segment of one of Ness’s earlier paintings. The effect is like finding Wally in a Where’s Wally book (or Ness’s own favoured I-Spy volumes), or, a little more grandly, noticing one of the comparable mirror-based conceits tucked into in a Velazquez painting. 

All of which could be read as merely ludic, or theory laden. But Ness is dovetailing these aspects into something else: an exploration of what it means to be seen and transvalued in seeing, to look and to care, and to be yourself as you are without fear. Go back to those art books strewn on her table, direct admissions of the imprint of others. In Publications of the Past (2020) Ness paints a slim stack of New Yorkers: there’s a metropolitan joke here about these things arriving and going unread, but Ness is more interested in the painted images she’s repainting (as is registered by a notebook nearby in which she’s re-drawing the top one, suggesting a plan for this painting, the canvas as mise-en-abyme). In art school, she’s said, her work was once criticised as looking like New Yorker covers. Ness, while owning the critique here, also espouses a freedom to like what she likes: the highly strange Sherlockian meerschaum shaped like Trump’s head, for example. (Behind this magazine, in another avowal that art is at least partly shaped by external pressures, is a magazine with a story on ‘The Plague Election’.) Ness sees the New Yorker cover, too, in a manner unclouded by aesthetic hierarchies. One might again think of Rockwell, of how his relatively topical Saturday Evening Post covers transmuted over time into some enduring if debatable model of America. Ness, one might say, has one eye on the present and the other on the future, when her art will telegraph something else, as yet unknowable.  

An underlying concern here is that what is seen always has inherent value, if you know how to see. Thinking in My Motorcycle Shirt (2020), a cropped portrait of a figure wearing a gaudy, figuratively illustrated shirt, treats apparel as something like a ukiyo-e painting, situating a world within a painted world. Espousing categorical fluidity, the bikes and people on the shirt feel, in this painterly economy, almost as real as the artist’s fingers or the pencil she’s holding, moving through a Muybridge-like series of positions, seemingly tapping out time, waiting for the observer. Yet a buttoned-up men’s patterned shirt is also a semaphore for queerness, a code requiring a degree of clandestine visual literacy. When Ness paints the hands in front of it in hallucinatory detail – a marker of her playfulness and determination, hands being famously difficult to paint – the work cumulatively avows the virtues of close looking, seeing an outside and recognising what, or who, is inside.   

As such, one might also see Ness’s paintings of her friends and family in double terms: both as sincere, supportive tributes to the people in her immediate orbit, and as a modelling of how we might – ‘ought to’ feels overly doctrinaire – value those in our own. In _____ (2021), Ness elevates a friend via a rhetorical conceit: she places him in a woodsy picnic-lunch context, with a winding river behind, that, for all that her friend is male and clothed, clearly recalls – again, visual literacy – Manet’s Le Déjeuner sur l’herbe (1863). (Another tribute to looking, a wink to the viewer who also knows, as they likely will, just as they may register all the shoed feet in Ness’s art and think of Philip Guston’s self-revealing studio paintings.) Anyway, Ness’s friend inhabits a world momentarily enlarged. A mystical burst of light emanates from the forest behind him; the can he’s drinking from, meanwhile, has some Van Gogh-esqe sunflowers on it, lovingly painted. (By contrast the Marlboro red he’s smoking is casually limned, because Ness doesn’t like cigarettes.) Reverbs of post-Impressionism continue elsewhere; in _____, for example, the child in a backpack nods back to Berthe Morisot, and sunflowers are a repeated motif in other recent works. In ______, Ness’s father, who is relatively young but infirm and holds a walking stick, sits in his own garden while sunflowers and tomatoes crowd in towards him; the pose, the painting’s unguardedness, and Ness’s sympathetic psychological acuity here recall Alice Neel. And, most clearly nodding to Vincent, sunflowers – their seed-filled heads hyperreal, like whirlpools – burst from a vase against a deep blue background and venetian blind in ____, shivering with life and seemingly peaking or just past their peak, like the other flowers in the vessel. Ness, meanwhile, has painted a reflection in the vase of herself and her girlfriend arguing.  

In operation here, one should note, is a voluntary self-demotion. From the outside – that is, to non-artists – artists can still, at this late moment, appear to be mysterious creatures and art an enigmatic manifestation. Not, that is, the work of flesh-and-blood entities who get by amid a mixture of analogue and digital mess; who make what they make at least in part because of other artists’ work; who have relationship problems like the rest of us; who worry about their parents; and who need a support system, a community, for all that they might seem to act in splendid isolation. That process, that mythologising, can happen because for many artists, all of the above is kept offstage. Ness, recognising working space in this fact, flips the dynamic. What she looks at, and where she situates herself, is the everyday world: everyday objects, everyday people, edged with unpredictability. But she pays her subjects the compliment of being seen, and – in making herself a relatively ordinary person too, as a presence in her art – she suggests that such looking is open to everyone. And, furthermore, that looking is a corollary of caring; to notice is to care, and vice versa.     

At this point, inevitably, Ness’s artistic agenda departs from its partial origins in theory – although it is worth noting the extent to which Object-Oriented Ontology overlaps with, say, ecological concerns – and speaks to a moment in which caring for others couldn’t be more imperative. Ness’s art doesn’t belabour the point. Rather, she creates pleasurable oases for looking in which looking feels more like discovering, in a way that might zap the viewer back to childhood. Your eye traverses her sociably coloured, cannily designed canvases full of snags and through-lines – as suggested at the outset, these are works well versed in Renaissance and Baroque visual rhetoric, in how to lead the viewer pleasurably around and through the painted rectangle – and, in the pleasurable work of close seeing, you find the things Ness has stored there, waiting. The nod, say, to another unabashedly confessional artist, Robert Crumb, via a volume on the worktable in Input (2019), while Ness paints herself and someone else – in a patterned shirt – seemingly advises as, the mirror confirms, she pays attention to them. The open comic-strip, “As Time Goes By”, that she leaves for the viewer to zoom in on in Brainstorming (2019), while Ness adeptly, painstakingly copies fragments out. (Consider that nested process: first, it would appear, she looked; then she made a drawing; then she made a painting of that drawing, and its origin point, and herself.)  

Here, and in Drawing Party and so many other places, we see Ness doing the work, daily, making a habit of it. And – as is visible on every inch of these paintings – reaping material rewards that then reward further viewers, addressing the latter with generous intent, patience, humour, sincerity. Ness’s art is, then, not rhetorical but a material demonstration, one that makes you want to do what she does. It doesn’t have to argue for the virtues of attention and loving care. Rather, it presents a tangible world in which those are the norms. A world that resembles our own, but one in which everyone and everything is equalised and aglow, in the light of being seen. “ 

-Martin Herbert

Ness lives and works in New York, NY. She holds an MFA from Yale School of Art and a BFA from Boston University. She has had solo exhibitions at Carl Kostyál, London; Nino Mier, Los Angeles; and 1969 Gallery, New York and has been included in group shows at Harper’s Books, East Hampton, NY; Carl Kostyál Hospitalet, Stockholm; Anton Kern, New York; Monya Rowe, New York; Alexander Berggruen, New York; Richard Heller Gallery, Los Angeles; 1969 Gallery, New York; and Gildar Gallery, Denver, CO among others. Ness has completed residencies at The Chautauqua Institution, Chautauqua, NY and the Venice Studio Arts Program.

Public collections include Albertina Museum, Vienna; Yale University Art Gallery; New Haven, CT​; Long Museum, Shanghai, China​; High Museum of Art; Atlanta, GA​; Denver Art Museum, Denver, CO​; SCAD Museum of Art, Savannah, GA​; Institute of Contemporary Art, Miami, FL​; JP Morgan Chase Art Collection​; Zuzeum Art Centre, Rīga, Latvia​; Kistefos Museum, Jevnaker, Norway​; K11 Art Foundation, Hong Kong​; Dangxia Art Space, Beijing; M Art Foundation, Shanghai​; Recharge Foundation, New York/Singapore​; Asymmetry Art Foundation, London/Hong Kong

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