Transcript: Artist Talk with Jamie Earnest
November 1, 2022
Lexi Bishop: Tell us about the title of the show. What exactly are we mourning?
Jamie Earnest: So, I grew up born and raised in Decatur, Alabama. And growing up my mom, a single mom, she instilled this version of southern hospitality in me that was very altruistic. This means open arms, open ears, no judgment, be kind, and imagine yourself in someone else's shoes. But as I got older, I kind of realized that's not the version of southern hospitality that was being implemented around me. You know, it was a very exclusionary version of southern hospitality reserved for those who are white, Christian, middle class or higher. And so, I think what this show is mourning is that a lot of southern hospitality traditions were built on the backs of people of color, who were not given any credit. I think what I'm mourning is that lack of credit, that lack of accountability, the loss of love, the loss of community, and it's this active, ongoing mourning. As I've always said, to love the south is to see with clear eyes both its horrific darkness and its warm light, and to spend a lifetime of work trying to make sense of both.
Lexi Bishop: How do you think Pittsburgh has impacted your work? And has working from here changed or affected your view of the South?
Jamie Earnest: When I moved to Pittsburgh, 10 years ago, I made this conscious decision to suppress my southern accent because I was afraid people were going to judge me and think I was stupid. And looking back, it was only the last couple of years that I realized how much I sacrificed because I was afraid of judgment. You know, I was coming to Carnegie Mellon, and I was like, “Oh my gosh, all of these people come from such amazing backgrounds.” And I'm ashamed of this place that I came from, so I felt like I had to hide that part of myself. And it was really the last couple years that I started to regret it and kind of grieve that loss. Now my accent still comes out sometimes, if I'm mad, or if I'm drunk.
Also, when I moved here, this was the only place I’d ever lived besides Decatur. I was like, “Oh my gosh, way to go to this progressive big city. It’s going to be so different.” And it didn't take me long to realize that it’s just not true and everywhere has these issues that haunt it. But being in Pittsburgh, I’ve felt very supported. And there's a great arts community here, so wonderful and exciting. I think Pittsburgh has given me a platform to be an artist. But I still have this voice in the back of my mind that feels guilty for running away from Alabama. Like who am I to make work about the south when I'm too scared to live there? It's a little painful. And I feel bad. You know, my whole family is still there.
Lexi Bishop: I was going to ask this later, but I feel like it makes sense to bring it up now. At first glance, a lot of these works are very dark in content. But there is something playful about them and joyous, like the use of color. Is there hope for us?
Jamie Earnest: I think so, you know, I think within this act of mourning, you know, acknowledging all of these things that have been lost, that's how we can really begin to heal and move forward.
Lexi Bishop: So how do you think this body of work is different from or has evolved since, for example, the work that you showed at the Andy Warhol Museum in 2016?
Jamie Earnest: I think when I first started making work about Alabama, it was more of like poking a little bit of satirical fun at Jeff Sessions and Roy Moore. It was more a coping mechanism for me to find humor in something that was deeply troubling. And then I took a break from painting for the last two years. It was just mentally not working out for me. And I decided to do some other stuff and really failed for two years. But it was worth it because I think it helped me to create this body of work. I think the paintings before were much more lighthearted and funnier. And I think with these, they're not as funny.
Lexi Bishop: They’re definitely darker. Well, what I like about all of these is that they're all passageways or portals—we're coming out of a cave, we're going upstairs or downstairs or, going through a dark scary doorway with a spider web.
Jamie Earnest: I think I've always thought of paintings as kind of portals, in general. You know, I remember my first time ever seeing a Rothko in person when I moved to Pittsburgh, and just burst into tears. It was just this beautiful portal of a field of color. There's something about paintings that I always feel invited into and I kind of want to give that off in my own work.
As for interiors, I like things that feel familiar, but you can't quite place your finger on it. You know, we can all recognize domestic symbols.
Lexi Bishop: I mean that literally is the definition of uncanny, right? Freud said that it's something familiar, that feels strange, and it usually happens in the home. So, I feel like that could be said about a lot of these works.
Another thing I want to talk about is your use of materials, because obviously it's something you're known for now. Could you explain a little bit like when you started experimenting with cement, foil, and mesh?
Jamie Earnest: I started experimenting when I was in college with a bunch of collage and oil mixed together. It's been trial and error over the last 10 years. I like the juxtaposition of different materials next to oil paint because I'm a sucker for texture. I love something to feast your eyes.
Lexi Bishop: It’s funny you say that because when you prime these canvases, you literally eliminate all the texture of the canvas.
Jamie Earnest: I try to eliminate as much of the grain of the canvas as possible when I'm priming. I just do that for a nice clean surface to start with.
Lexi Bishop: Another thing is your use of text, whether it’s in the painting itself, or in your long titles that give you lots of information. What’s your relationship to text? Do you want to talk about some of specific references being made?
Jamie Earnest: I never thought my titles were that long! But a lot of my work starts off as text, you know, it's an idea...things I’m reading and researching. And I just write in my sketchbook or on my phone if I'm out. And some of that text eventually finds its way through. I feel like the use of text is something I've always struggled with because it matters how the text is presented—if it's mechanical, or if it's handwritten, I think those all emit different emotions and different readability of the texts. I don't think I've like fully mastered the use of texts in my work, but I don't think it's something that I'll ever give up.
Lexi Bishop: How about the text in Midnight Meeting?
Jamie Earnest: There’s just a little text: “One need not be a chamber.” It's the beginning of an Emily Dickinson poem. And the full line is “one need not be a chamber to be haunted.” And she's talking about being haunted within your own mind.
Lexi Bishop: Another internal space. Homes can be haunted, but maybe what's more haunting is our own thoughts. Exactly.
Could you tell us a little bit about which artists contemporary or historical that you were looking at right now, right now?
Jamie Earnest: I was looking a bit at Mamma Andersson, a Swedish artist. Great interior spaces. But also, I was looking at John Divola photographs. I like his glowing, dirty spaces that are so inviting, but the more you look, you're disgusted. But they're so beautiful. And that's kind of where I wanted to go with this. And then I always love Kerry James Marshall. I think his narrative ability and his work is just unmatched.
Lexi Bishop: You have a lot of shadows in your paintings.
Jamie Earnest: I like shadows. They're ominous.
Lexi Bishop: We kind of skipped this, but could you talk about the work that really start this series? Especially the title – what does it mean?
Jamie Earnest: I do love this painting because it is the first painting of all of these. It's titled Verstellung/Tombstone. Verstellung is this German word that I'm trying to recall exactly the definition—it's describing something material that joins the spiritual and the living together. Like a tombstone or, you know, an altar. And in this painting, I have two tombstones and my version of the creation of Adam with the gardening gloves.
Lexi Bishop: There is a unique use of perspective. Are you trying to make us disoriented?
Jamie Earnest: Yes. Very much intentional. I kind of want you to feel, at first glance, enticed, and then maybe second glance uncomfortable, or feel off kilter, weird.
Lexi Bishop: And maybe in some way, you’re trying to make us feel your uncomfortable relationship with the South?
Jamie Earnest: Quite possibly. Maybe this is something that my subconscious has been doing that I haven't necessarily made the ties with out loud.