In 1958, Agnès Varda was walking around the somewhat insalubrious rue Mouffetard, in Paris’ Latin Quarter. She was pregnant with her daughter and carrying a hefty camera. The streets were dirty and crowded. Varda reflected some of her experiences in a short film, L’Opéra-Mouffe, a part-documentary, part-diary, that put the female subjectivity wholly at its centre, while contending with cliches about femininity and the maternal. L’Opéra-Mouffe deftly deals with the idea of what it means to be a woman–that physical, psychic presence.

That preternatural presence preoccupies the planes of Jenna Gribbon’s paintings in which her subjects – her partner, and friends, people close to her – encounter Varda’s films, projected in Gribbon’s home in New York. We watch Gribbon, watching them, watching Varda. Through these “layers of looking”, as Gribbon puts it, we move from the scene in real time through the time-based (in a pair of paintings, ‘Limpid Pools Like Me’ and ‘You Want Me To Pose Nude’, we perceive the time passing as the film plays, the same figures, in different positions, the glow of the screen lighting up their faces differently); to the photographs she took to produce the painting, a single frozen moment in time; to the painting, which exists in perpetuity, beyond time. The scene was contrived, but not constructed, by Gribbon, to show women not only subjects, but spectators, both participant and contemplative. The looking – as a painter understands well – is as important as the acting, and the painting allows us what the film cannot; to see the women seeing. Like Varda, Gribbon does not merely “show things” (in Varda’s words) — but enacts “the desire to see”.

Desire is important in Gribbon’s work – the desire that is implicit in the gaze, the objectification that turning someone else into a work of art involves. However, “treating objectification as some kind of deal breaker negates the actual complexity of the subject and blocks interesting paths of exploration”, as Gribbon once told me. Desire in Gribbon’s painting is not intended to arouse pleasure, as misogynistic culture might have it – but in Audre Lorde’s notion of the erotic, as “a measure between the beginnings of our sense of self and the chaos of our strongest feelings”.

Gribbon’s direct and intentional referencing of Varda brings us to the roots in the discourse around the female gaze, which originated in cinema and in feminism in Europe, in the 1970s. The notion of the gendered ‘gaze’ itself evolved from Laura Mulvey’s now famous essay, first published in Screen magazine in 1975. In Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema, Mulvey insists on the importance of the spectator, with an allegorical image of an audience as “crowds scattered before the projection of an on-rushing train”, primed for the showmanship of a film, and its phantom promise. Two years later, Varda made her audacious, pro-choice musical, One Sings, The Other Doesn’t, following the friendship that evolves between two women, Pauline and Suzanne, as they understand the extent to which their bodies are oppressed and fight to reclaim their agency. Gribbon was born a year after the film was released; four decades on she is an active part of a group of artists living in New York, charged with the same energy in confronting a society that has barely changed in a generation. In this body of work Gribbon depicts a variety of gazes: staring, glancing, peeking, scruntising; loving, curious, oppositional, imploring – a rumination on how we see, and how we might start to see differently.

Gribbon’s first encounters with Varda’s films aged 20 were the beginning of a path of self-discovery in her practice as an artist, and as a woman. Gribbon beautifully dovetails the themes in Varda’s ‘cinecriture’ with her own perspectives, evocatively picking up on the essence on the films while making them her own. These paintings convey a certain wistful quality for that personal revelation, a moment in which your eyes are opened to all the possibilities in this world, where suddenly, you can see yourself in it too.

There is, in my mind at least, a subtle enquiring in these paintings, a kind of soul-searching about the position of the painter and painting, and about the place of art in the world – alluded to, with a hint of irony, in ‘dead painters’. The value of art has perhaps never been questioned in the way it has in the last year — stripped down to the ‘essentials’, culture has become something cultivated at home, in private, in the way it is shown in Gribbon’s paintings. Yet as the artist observes people she knows encounters Varda’s cinema for the first time-an experience that was so informative and meaningful to her–she also suggests that there is still a point to all this, to making art – that it can do something. The same way those people watching these films might feel something significant shift in them, the same way Gribbon once did, then there is also the possibility that someone looking at these paintings might feel shift in them something too. The paintings prove their own purpose.

There is more too; there’s a collective impulse in these intimate portraits. In painting after Varda, Gribbon consciously continues the legacy, picks up the baton, in trying to articulate our desires and concerns, an attempt to speak to the female unconscious, while still, as Mulvey wrote in 1973 as if it were today, “caught within the language of the patriarchy”.

– Charlotte Jansen, April 2021

Date: May 1 — May 292021
Photography: Anna Arca