Painter Jenny Morgan talks about the process behind her nude self-portraits

I met Jenny Morgan within twelve hours of stepping onto the filthy and gorgeous streets of Manhattan for the first time in 2007. I was assisting Sarah Cass on a photo shoot of one of Jenny's portrait subjects, and I have been following her work religiously since that moment.

This Friday, June 1, the painter returns to her second home, Plus Gallery in Denver, for her latest exhibition, Kith And Kin.

Originally from Salt Lake City, Morgan found her way to Denver for undergraduate studies at Rocky Mountain College of Art and Design. While there, she became Plus Gallery owner Ivar Zeile's first assistant, a relationship that blossomed into a professional one as Morgan's career unfolded. Receiving her masters in fine art from the School of Visual Arts in New York in 2008, Morgan has worked out of NYC ever since, with international exhibitions of her work and portrait commissions from the likes of the New York Times and New York magazine.

In advance of her latest show for Plus, Morgan discussed her painting process, the challenges of commissioned work and honest detachment from portrait subjects -- even when that subject is her own naked body. Westword:When did you start painting?

Jenny Morgan:I started painting as a teenager, in a serious way. I learned oils when I was fifteen. I started figure painting then as well.

Was there a particular artist or work of art that struck you in a way that contributed to what you do today?

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Not as an adolescent; I think everyone starts figure drawing and painting as sort of the beginning block. I went into college as an illustration major -- because of my skill set, my advisors said I would be good in that genre. So I took the advice of the adults around me. But once I actually got into the work that was involved with being an illustrator -- working with other people's ideas and dealing with the commercial aspect -- I realized early on that I wasn't that into it. I wanted to be in my studio making my own work.

That's when I became more influenced by painters like Jenny Saville. She was the big female painter that really shifted me into knowing that I could make this figurative work and have it be impactful -- outside of this commercial work -- and make a living.

I'm glad I took those courses, though; I learned basic drawing skills, and, from that school [Rocky Mountain College of Art and Design], I got my technical training. I'm glad I did that before moving into the more conceptual thought arena.

How did you come to painting nudes, specifically?

I've always wanted to work with the figure; I've tried doing it clothed, but I found I have no interest in clothing. Once you start setting scenery and taking these photographs yourself, every single aspect of the painting becomes important. I had no desire to paint those things. The skin tells more of a story to me than the actual clothing; it became about getting down to the basic part of these people. Getting down to the raw aspect of it and painting skin is really exciting.

Do you know the people that you paint, personally? How do you get them to pose for you?

They are always people I know -- in grad school, I experimented with hiring models. I wanted to work with actual prostitutes and paint these women in the traditional way that men would paint women for hire. One of my friends had just shot a porn in his living room, and he connected me with these girls. I paid to photograph them, and started painting these huge paintings of them.

Halfway through, I realized I just didn't care; I didn't know anything about them. It became really apparent at that time that I have to have a personal and emotional and intellectual interest in the people. When I'm staring and looking at a photograph for hours, it is more of a relationship with them then anything else. It's always people close to me, and I'm always amazed that 99 percent of the people I ask willingly pose nude for me. (Laughs.) It hasn't been an issue for me.

I feel like because they trust me -- even if they don't end up necessarily liking the painting -- they trust the process. It's always hard for people to see their own image; so I never expect people to be like, "Oh, my god, I love it! It's the best thing ever!" (Laughs) You know, when the painting is sanded down and they've got weird colors showing, they're not always flattering. So I never expect anyone to really appreciate how they visually look, but I think they trust me enough to allow me to do that. I'm always thankful for that. From the photograph to the final piece, what is your process like? How long does each work take?

The photograph sessions usually last about an hour and I take between fifty and one hundred shots. It goes quicker than it sounds. Editing down is one of my favorite processes -- to see the range of emotions in everyone, and how they carry themselves through time. It's interesting. I edit down, to find the image I'm most attracted to. Sometimes I'm attracted to multiple images from a shoot.

Then I get them processed and developed at a certain place every time, and blow the image up on a copier and do a pastel transfer. I make my own canvases -- I still use stretcher bars -- and that takes a day or two of prep. Then I lay the image down; I always start on a red underground surface, so that's the red that peeks through with the sanding, or shows up in certain surfaces. I started doing the red base in college, and now it's the only way I can really work. The red is really meaningful as a base layer.

The actual painting, sanding and other techniques, takes about two weeks. The larger pieces are usually two or three weeks, from start to finish.

What about when you do a commissioned piece, like the Julian Assange and Courtney Love pieces?

Those are due in five days, so it's a much different process. The back-and-forth with a creative director usually takes a day. They supply the photo, usually, or it's an online sourced photo. Then, over the next four days, I put a shit-load of drier in the paint -- like a cobalt drier -- and I try to do layers quickly.

I make them an actual painting -- I know I could do it on a smaller scale, but then my final product wouldn't mean as much to me. It was important to me to make the commissioned paintings as large as I usually would. It's nice for me, because I have an actual piece at the end of it, and I have a collector based in Denver who has priority viewing on commissioned pieces. He's collecting them as a body of work, which is rewarding for me. His plan in the future is to show them in an exhibition. After thinking in this commercial way to make the piece, it's rewarding to think it will bounce back in that other realm.

I've never had the opportunity to meet these people and photograph them for commissions, but I'm hoping to get to a place where I can. I'm talking with New York magazine about getting to a place where that is the actual project; I think it would be so interesting.

For now, they usually hire me because they can't get to the person, or the person doesn't want to be photographed. I didn't want to take it on, initially, because it is in that 'illustration world'. It's such a fine line and you don't want to get boxed in to that when you're a fine artist. But it was a large platform, (the subjects) were interesting and it was early in my career. It was an opportunity I couldn't deny. How do you feel about painting yourself nude? And knowing other people are going to see it?

The harder part is photographing myself. It's usually not that pleasant because you really have to review yourself. But then I just detach. I have to view myself as, "This is another body." This is not the body I get dressed in the morning; I still weigh myself and have all of those same everyday thoughts on who I am. I just put myself in a different category and detach and see myself (in the work) as body and skin. If I didn't detach, I don't think I could do it. I would be too critical.

Once the image is drawn, and it's on to painting, it's not like it's me. It becomes this convenient body to practice different things on. It's prevalent in the work because I'm so available at any moment. (Laughs.)

I can't imagine standing in front of that kind of work and talking to someone about it.

(Laughs) Obviously, when I have studio visits, I hide the photographs. But, like, I had a visit the other day -- some friends from Denver had come out to visit -- and I had just started a huge six-foot canvas of me. I'm standing there talking to them, while my breasts are just drawn, and there. (Laughs.) It's why I have to detach and be like, "They're not thinking about me naked, that's not happening." (Laughs).

Do you consider yourself a photographer? What is your relationship to that aspect of the process?

I recently did a visiting artist trip to a school in North Carolina, and it was the first time I had worked with undergrad students. I was critiquing their work and looking through their process. I also went through this thing they did -- you're a painter, but you need reference photos, so you have a crappy digital camera, and you're snapping shots the best you can.

In grad school, one of my main influences, and a woman I later started working for, was Marilyn Minter. She asked to see my reference photos, and was like, "These are awful. You need to get a better camera." That's why I actually called Sarah (Cass) -- I didn't have a good camera at the moment and I needed to impress this professor. I needed to get some good photos going. That was a turning point; when I worked from those high-quality photographs, I realized that you are no better than the thing you're looking at. When you're that kind of painter -- a painter that needs to be visually stimulated and it doesn't come from your brain - that's when I got a better camera. I really focused more on developing that skill, instead of just thinking about the painting.

I still don't consider myself a fantastic photographer. I barely understand my equipment -- I'll tell anyone that. It's not a big deal, but I know how to work it in the way that I need to. I'm getting better at just dealing with the subject matter in the way that I'm not just the painter but also the photographer. It's definitely a developing dynamic. But it comes down to as long as I have what I need, I just focus on the painting.

You're showing at Plus Gallery in Denver - a space that you have had a long and deep relationship with as a painter. What's the back-story?

Number one, it's my relationship with Ivar. During my undergrad, he was a real champion of my work. And I think it's rare to have someone see that little nugget of what you could potentially be, and to really reward the young work that you make. When I look back at the work that he was seeing and showing and selling at that point, I think 'oh, it was so young and naïve and I can't believe I made it.' But when you look at the scope of the work, it starts to make sense. I just give him so much credit and I am so blessed that he has been in my life and been so supportive for so long. It's natural for me to keep working with him, even as I have shows here in New York and grow in here.

It makes sense to foster that relationship. Denver just feels really good to come home to. The art community is really closely connected and very intelligent and aware. It's rewarding to be able to go back and feel that energy. It's hard to explain; in New York, it's so big and there's so much pressure and competition. To go to a community where everyone really supports each other -- I mean there is always competition - it reminds me of how I started with art, and how at the core is a positive, beautiful thing. There's no crazy pressure and pretentiousness around it. It reminds me to be in it for the right reasons, and not to get caught up in the chaos that comes with the scene.

Kith And Kin opens Friday, June 1, at Plus Gallery, 2501 Larimer Street, with a reception from 6 to 10 p.m. For more information, visit the gallery's website.

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