Previously on View: Jenna Gribbon

January 27 through May 22, 2022


painting of seated woman in purple velvet and red coatWhat Am I Doing Here? I Should Ask You the Same, 2022
Oil on linen
48 x 36 inches
Courtesy of the artist; Fredericks & Freiser, NY; and MASSIMODECARLO
Photo by Joseph Coscia Jr.

Jenna Gribbon questions conventions of portraiture, exploring gendered gazes, presentations of power, and ideas of viewership. Inspired by Hans Holbein’s acute attention to detail, Gribbon creates illusions of tactility in the painting of flesh, hair, fabric, and much else—testaments to the physical presence of the subjects and the painter’s acts of looking at them. Here, Gribbon intervenes in the traditional pairing of two historical men: for about a century, Holbein’s portraits of Thomas More and Thomas Cromwell—mortal enemies in the English king Henry VIII’s quest for absolute power—have faced each other in the Frick’s galleries.

Gribbon’s What Am I Doing Here? I Should Ask You the Same joins Holbein’s Thomas Cromwell in the galleries. Standing in for Thomas More, the painting breaks the historical dynamic of two men in profile, her subject facing frontally, with legs splayed. Gribbon supplants the traditional male gaze with that of a queer woman artist, her subject of ambiguous gender. Her sitter wears six rings—to Cromwell’s one—and an intensely violet velvet suit and a red coat, the color and heightened textural effects verging on camp. Set under glaring light and in the home she shares with the artist, Gribbon’s subject is imbued with a theatrical quality, her torso and breast uncovered, bare-faced and unabashed in confronting the viewer. Gribbon’s painting is an homage to Holbein’s art and an exploration of histories and legacies, initiating conversation between portraits then and now, and viewers past and present.

What Am I Doing Here? I Should Ask You the Same temporarily takes the place of Sir Thomas More, which is currently on loan to the exhibition Holbein: Capturing Character at The Morgan Library & Museum, New York (February 11–May 15, 2022).

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[Aimee Ng, Curator]

Jenna Gribbon’s What Am I Doing Here? I Should Ask You the Same engages with the 16th-century portrait by Hans Holbein in this room. Here is the artist describing how Holbein’s art inspires her, and the themes she explores in her painting.

[Jenna Gribbon, Artist]

When we encounter a portrait in a museum, our thoughts often turn immediately to who the subject is, and what made them special enough to be enshrined in that rarified space. My work tends to be about positioning the viewer into a place of self-consciousness of their consumption of an image of another person’s body or intimate moment. I wanted my painting entitled What Am I Doing Here? I Should Ask You the Same to empower my subject, who is my partner Mackenzie, and put her in a position to question your questioning of her. Unlike Holbein’s portraits of Sir Thomas More and Thomas Cromwell, who turned toward each other in the Frick’s hanging, offering us their profiles, Mackenzie greets us head on, her expression indicating that we’re intruding. The title is also a reference to my own feelings about being “allowed” to show at the Frick. Growing up in East Tennessee, I didn’t have access to museums, and I fantasized about being able to see paintings in real life. I couldn’t imagine seeing one painting of the caliber of anything in the Frick’s collection, and I never imagined a place where there would be so many. For me, museums are still aspirational places where I feel lucky to visit, much less exhibit, and that’s without even considering that the Frick houses so few women artists. This reality moves the aspirational to the realm of completely unattainable, and my subject’s face reflects my own skepticism. Holbein’s subjects are depicted with legible status symbols that signal power and social status—essentially their right to be featured in the painting. One thing I love about Holbein is the way he paints each object and surface so separately and with such potency that they are like talismans each holding their own discreet powers. I decided to play up these seductive features to the level of camp—camp being a cornerstone of the queer aesthetic historically. There’s not just one or two kinds of velvet, but three, and not just one opulent ring, but six, and all of this humorously contrasts with the subdued domestic setting of the home I share with my partner, the only details of which you’re privy to are our uncovered radiator and the door from which she bars your entry. And knowing that Sir Thomas More and his beautifully velvet sleeves so deftly highlighted would be greatly missed by Frick visitors, I wanted to reference that uncanny tactility, though my highlights emphasize a very different part of my subject’s anatomy. 

[Aimee Ng, Curator]

The installation is part of the series Living Histories: Queer Views and Old Masters, and will be on view until May 2022.


About the Artist

photo of Jenna Gribbon

Jenna Gribbon (b. Knoxville, Tennessee, 1978) lives and works in Brooklyn, New York. Her syncretic canvases draw on several centuries of painting: figures disporting themselves in a sylvan setting recall Fragonard’s fêtes galantes; interiors with swiftly articulated walls evoke the cursory backgrounds of Mary Cassatt; gently distorted architectural features summon the laissez-faire depictions of Karen Kilimnik. Sampling freely from various representational techniques and movements, Gribbon’s paint handling ranges from the virtuosic to the intentionally slapdash; fast, impressionistic strokes often abut minutely illustrated details, highlighting the artist’s interest in collapsing numerous pictorial strategies into a single canvas. Her work has been exhibited widely in the United States and abroad. She has been included in exhibitions at the Museum of Modern Art, Warsaw; the Museum of Contemporary Art Jacksonville; and the Kurpfälzisches Museum, Heidelberg (upcoming). Gribbon is represented by Fredericks & Freiser, NY and MASSIMODECARLO. This past Fall Gribbon's work was the subject of a solo exhibition, Uscapes, at Fredericks & Freiser, New York and MASSIMODECARLO presented a solo show, Light Holding, in London in early 2022. A monograph of Gribbon's work was published by GNYP GmbH in September 2021.

Photo: Nir Arieli