In the opening sequences of Agnès Varda’s portrait of actor and singer Jane Birkin ‘Jane B. par Agnès V’ (1988) a conversation takes place between the director and her subject. Birkin is pressed by Varda on the necessity of her gaze, ‘You must play by the rules. Look at the camera as much as you can.’ Birkin is reluctant, the lens of the camera conveys the same intimacy as a person’s eye -- to look directly is impolite, ‘It’s too personal.’ Varda explains the camera is like a mirror, through which the artist and her subject might look at one another, ‘I’m filming your self- portrait. But you won’t be alone in your mirror. There’ll be the camera, which is a bit me.’ In this way Varda makes explicit the tensions that are erased by convention, how portraiture is never a straightforward act of simply looking and transcribing, but rather a game with rules in which artist and subject are active players.
‘Agnès V. par Jenna G.’ This exhibition derives its name from the aforementioned film, but here a new dialogue is established, between French filmmaker and artist Varda (1929 - 2019) and the American painter Jenna Gribbon (born 1978), who has established a growing reputation for her intimate figurative painting. Working primarily in oils, often on small canvases ten by twelve inches in size, Gribbon’s carefully crafted portraits often comprise social scenes inspired by gatherings she hosts at home and elsewhere. Friends and family intermingle in her elegantly composed works that place great emphasis on the experience of the body in these private spheres. Through a fluent brushwork and attention to the staging and lighting of the scene, Gribbon’s paintings contrive a cinematic atmosphere that inevitably leads to artistic dialogue with a filmmaker such as Varda.
Gribbon explains, ‘I’m interested in the way Varda includes in her films the impact of her own imagery on her experience seemingly as she goes along, and there is an emphasis on seeing the seeing in both of our approaches to our subjects that I’m focused on in these paintings. She really colludes with her subjects.’ Questions of verisimilitude also figure in her appreciation, she adds that ‘The inclusion of documentary moments in her fictional films lets us know that she and they are conscious of every aspect of the alchemy of their dynamic.’ In the paintings on show here, members of Gribbon’s social circle come together in an informal setting to watch Varda’s films. The projected image is thrown onto the bare wall and we see figures seated on the floor, presumably from the point of view of the painter herself. Varda’s cinematic portraits of women gaze out from the projected image and are engaged by Gribbon’s guests, and all is sensitively rendered in oil, with a careful emphasis on colour and light. Yellow subtitles, a leitmotif of arthouse film, underscore the film image, and these spoken scripted elements sometimes become the basis for titles. Poignant written and performed fragments from Varda’s world are allowed to frame the paintings that in turn frame them.
Varda’s films often focus on the interleaving of everyday life and fiction, theatrical staged moments combined with a matter-of-fact presentation of her subjects. She often spoke about the search for new images, new organisational approaches to film form and the quest to find things that have not yet been shown in her distinctive way. The exhibition presents three clips and six still images from the oeuvre of Agnès Varda in direct dialogue with new
paintings by Jenna Gribbon. An encounter is created between the mother of French new wave cinema and the New York painter that highlights the ongoing search for new images of intimacy and agency by women artists, who are mindful of both the constraints and potential of their respective mediums in capturing images of lived experience.