The Slow, Meditative Optimism of Jillian Kay Ross

Jillian Kay Ross doesn’t make conceptual paintings. She doesn’t question the fundamentals of her medium, or speak critically to any historical lineage. She isn’t striving towards innovation or obsessed with experimentation. Strictly speaking, she isn’t even a painter. The work she has been producing lately is much more akin to drawing.

However, Ross performs all the romantic gestures that we’ve come to expect from a painter. She connects to her subject matter. She follows a ritualized process of observing, isolating, and reflecting the dominant media and content of her time. She makes confident and graceful marks on canvas that ignore the limitations of the frame and convey a personal approach to her chosen medium. In the manner of contemporary history painting, Ross’s work provides us with fragments for reconstruction.

Most Dogs go to Heaven, at Division Gallery (Toronto), is an exhibition of eighteen new works that highlight Ross’s characteristically restrained and minimalist line. Using marker, acrylic, and oil on canvas saturated with varying concentrations of gesso, each piece effectively conveys an equal attention to materiality and content. Working strictly with primary materials, Ross uses paint straight from the tube, applying it to her ground with inexpensive, disposable brushes. This self-imposed limitation communicates a desire to remain connected to the inherent character of her chosen media. Instead of manipulating color or attempting to control the quality of her line, Ross accepts moments of roughness alongside the smooth, engaging in a sort of collaboration between herself and the components of her painting. The behavior of the paint varies depending on its makeup, and each piece is produced with an acceptance of whatever texture the color will provide. Ross enjoys how brush, paint and pen-tip respond in predictably unpredictable ways.

Just as she sustains a certain level of chance in her material processes, Ross sources the subjects of her work largely through impulse, she tells me. She does not consciously curate what she paints. Instead, she picks whatever she’s drawn to in the moment, either from her personal image base or online. Sometimes the selection is based on mood or memory; sometimes it’s simply the result of an attraction to form or composition. Once chosen, each image is carefully framed and fragmented so as to remove all evidence of its origins and context. The resulting works feature any number of subjects, from the safety strap used in teaching children how to ride horses, to a piece of folded modeling clay, to an abstracted human form. In each case, the subjects are separated from their surroundings, presented in a state of contextual isolation. By removing all detail and almost all evidence of their individuality, a literal and metaphorical flattening occurs. All background and surface detail are made unavailable and character-defining features tend to be cut off by the parameters of the frame. The works rely on outline and the nature of their material composition to convey whatever remains of their essence. By presenting her final works this way, Ross refuses to recognize any hierarchy between forms of representation and between negative and positive space. In fact, her final images seem to float in space, but are also grounded in that space by way of framing – as though it were possible to steal screenshots directly from the physical world.

The exhibition text, written by Ross herself, positions the works in Most Dogs go to Heaven as “a collection of reassurances.” By allowing repurposed images to abandon their previous contexts, they become liberated to act in a new narrative based on free association. Ross begins her text by relating an anecdote that concerns a false but widely accepted report of the Pope’s position on allowing all dogs’ entrance into heaven. Although convincing as a stand-alone piece that echoes the overall mood of the exhibition – much like a word-based version of the visual works – the narrative focus of her text is narrowing, and its effort to impose structure where none is needed is overly directive. Instead, viewers would do well to allow the works to speak for themselves – as a collection of personally-selected archives of information that tell their story primarily through content and material. Applying a looser and more personal method of observing led me to discover the most successful connector between the paintings: the reoccurring imagery of the greyhound, the alternating fluidity and rhythm of the line, and the overall subtle variations in surface texture all point towards a decisive feeling of embodied motion.

Beginning with the overworked marker scribbles that frame the dancing, negative-space portrait of Leaded, I noticed a gesture, ambulation, and dynamism distinct from Ross’s previous work. Hanging directly to the right of Leaded is MODEL 1, a piece that features the disembodied and digitally compressed head of a gif-style horse paired with a piece of folded modeling clay. Both the movement of the horse’s mane and the implied action of compressing and folding are distinctly energetic. My eye was led from the tips of the horse’s mane to the even distribution of dashes that form the graceful jaw line of a deer skeleton in Deseret 2. By deciding not to end, but instead extend, this line outwards beyond the frame, Ross was able to carry the piece directly into Go dogs go, an impressive marker and acrylic illustration of two racing greyhounds in mid-stride. Arguably the strongest piece in the show, Go dogs go is a singularly graceful portrait that typifies Ross’s remarkable commitment to her practice. Using the streamline quality of a rich turquoise marker and the selective elimination of the dog’s heads through framing, Ross endows this piece with a determined feeling of limitlessness. Only adding to the strength of it is an unusual use of gesso as more of a material rather than merely a grounding for pigment. Knowing full well how degrees of application affect the ease of pigment absorption, Ross has developed a technique of pouring gesso onto the canvas so that the surface depth and texture varies from deep white splash marks to a completely raw canvas. In Go dogs go, the gesso acts like an accent to the dog’s tremendous exertion, almost like sweat or excrement as it might accompany these creatures under such physical duress.

This particular genre of articulated energy appears also in the softened and completely smooth marker lines of So I hear you like being blue and Felt tip. By treating the lines in each of these pieces with a light but consistent wash, Ross succeeds in causing them to vibrate and glow, so that their two-dimensionality appears to pull up and away from physical constraints. Despite their fragmented nature and the completeness of their outlines, both scenes contain depth inherent to their represented motion. Even the blown-up casino icons of SM Variety 1 & 2 – conceivably the oddest ones out in this show – can be connected to their aforementioned neighbors through reference to the repetitive action required in order to fold and flip them open to an exposed state.

All of this is not to read the exhibition as a glorified study of line and motion. The cohesive nature of Ross’s work is achieved in other, even more subtle and ineffable ways. Today is 2 – a scale-defying depiction of a cherry resting at the bottom of a glass – is almost like a snapshot, with the cherry frozen awkwardly, impossibly, even, in space. This piece is strongest when considering how it walks the line between abstraction and representation. The completely paired-down nature of both cherry and glass is so simply rendered as to appear almost naive. And yet, both objects are just real enough without attempting any true illusion, to evoke a level of believability. In this piece Ross has achieved a method of painterly representation that not only embodies truth, but begins to reveal a new essence from which reality can be perceived.

Painting’s pre-photographic role as a primary tool for recording the world is present in three pairs of small paintings: Hyponymy 1 & 2, Fasttener 1 & 2, and post pone 1 & 2. These are the only works in the exhibition that can be seen to function historically, and yet, mood is the defining factor for their interest. Ross’s questionable choice of subject matter has the combined effect of being both endearing and somewhat disturbing. The paired paintings in particular – a set of decorative bows, common nails, and horse’s bits, respectively – are rendered so singularly and as isolated (several of them also heavily washed so that they visually fade) that they almost refuse engagement entirely. Instead of alienating, they become effective due to their surprising extraneousness; remaining consistent with the aesthetic of the line but refusing any movement beyond what the viewer’s mind might personally associate. These works act as specimens for study, or direct records of the contemporary – like items put forth for inclusion in a time-capsule. This lone nod to the past has a grounding effect on the rest of the works that provides a welcome limitation to their unmoored nature.

These connections, these personal interpretations and ennoblements of what could otherwise appear as arbitrary or even superficial, are what constitute the appeal of Ross’s work. The personal is what supports and legitimizes the quality of her line and the particularity of her selections. Contained in the mood of her brush and pen strokes and the implied slowness of their gentle application, is a genuine and contagious love of mark-making. We do not require a conceptual subtext for these works because their character is subtext enough. Contained within each deceptively simple composition is a personal expression of optimism that feels more like a meditation than a statement. These are paintings by the artist of her world. Ross is not in the game in order to reinvent herself, but to continue her story with grace, joy, and ease. Like so much history painting, it’s not until we have surpassed the present that the true records of our time are revealed. By choosing to engage with subtlety in the face of ubiquity and relocate the virtual within the physical, Ross may well find a place for her work as bookmark for the contemporary.

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