All Dressed

La Femme 100 têtes: in conversation with Janet Werner

The visionary 20th century artist Brion Gysin believed that trends in the visual arts arrived, innovatively speaking, about a half-century ahead of those in modern literature. Thus, only by the late-1950s did Gysin and his most famous collaborator, the Beat Generation author, William S. Burroughs, deploy in narrative fiction those decades-old cut-up techniques that Surrealists like Max Ernst called “Collage,” or filmmakers like Sergei Eisenstein dubbed “Montage.”

The internet, though, has scrambled these clear temporal taxonomies, and today, it is more difficult to define which trends influence which, and when. The cut-up has become a legitimate artistic method that, true to form, exists best out-of-context, when it neither follows nor is followed.

Cutting into the written word, like cutting into the photographic image, produced for Burroughs and Gysin unexpected and often exciting juxtapositions — transitions that possibly reveal concealed meanings, tease out inscrutable interpretations, and even render the psychically repressed in sharp relief. The meaning of things evolves and adapts, too, across disparate media and genres. More recently in the Hip-Hop lexicon, for example, the phrase “in the cut” is used literally to designate an actual, physical location where something — or someone — is concealed. In the cut, some fundamental truth is obscured, lurking, threatening to be laid bare.

The Montreal artist Janet Werner’s latest cycle, collected in a beautiful new publication entitled Sticky Pictures, rests squarely on the splice. A number of Werner’s provocative paintings take fashion photographs — almost exclusively women — as their subject matter, cut, pasted, and represented in Werner’s striking, painterly figurative expressionism. In the cut, which paint on canvas makes even messier somehow, Werner’s viewers are encouraged to look between, to search beyond the image for what was omitted, and what, if anything, exists in the void.

“It’s been a kind of sideways step,” Werner tells me of the montage style, during a December visit to her studio in Montreal’s Mile-End district.

“It’s been a kind of accidental move into that cinematic idea. Lately, I’ve been intercutting images, which causes a shift. You can’t read the images in the original way because there’s something happening. I guess I want them to be objects that contain questions, and that make you wrestle with how to interpret them. So, it’s not necessarily a critique, but it’s an opening up, possibly, of how to interpret the images. I was for a long time hiding the cuts. Now, most of these paintings have these splits in them. You can see where the collage is happening. Having not studied cinema, I’m not familiar with all the terminology, like jump-cuts, and different cinematic techniques. There is a sense of time that’s introduced by these splits.”

It is that sense of time that lends Werner’s work its urgent momentum, propelling the viewer forward or alternately scrubbing backwards over the rupture. It’s not unlike our experience nowadays of scrolling through social media, for which Werner confesses a fascination.

“It’s Instagram, really,” Werner says. “I’m actively looking, and it’s a terrible addiction, and I have an addictive personality type, so I just feel it’s sort of ruining things a little bit. Although at the same time I’m so curious and interested in everything. I was never a big Facebook person. I’m not much of a talker. I don’t like to generate text for any kind of consumption. But images, that’s my life. So Instagram is just like an endless stream. And it’s hard to not look. And also, you feel responsible to participate. That’s a mechanism for sharing what you do, and everyone’s looking at it. If you’re not participating, you feel a little bit like people won’t know about your stuff.”

Nonetheless, Werner has achieved venerable artist status, the au courant Little Burgundy gallery Bradley Ertaskiran representing her work after a decade-long relationship with curator Megan Bradley of The Parisian Laundry. “2008 was my first show there,” recalls Werner. “It’s been 14 years, wow.” Bradley Ertaskiran actively tours Werner’s catalogue, along with all their artists, at influential international fairs like Art Basel in Miami and The Independent Art Fair in New York City.

As well, Werner now operates under the aegis of prestigious Los Angeles gallery Anat Ebgi, which will feature her solo exhibition, entitled, Call Me When You Start Wearing Red, in January. “There’s something so flexible-seeming about the medium of painting,” Werner marvels, “that it can still be functioning and still be practiced by so many artists. Such a simple medium, that’s incredible.”

Werner’s cut-up paintings seem to appeal so much to the senses — visually at first, but also, notably, to texture and tempo.

“I love all the senses,” Werner admits.

“I think about dance a lot, and choreography. Rhythm. Movement. Those things are certainly a part of what I think about when I try to create movement in an image, which is static. I was having this conversation with someone and he used this phrase, which I loved, which was ‘dialogue of withholding.’ The idea that you can’t actually solve these images because there’s this rupture. And there’s some kind of a disturbance in the formal elements, the colour, the rhythm, the movement through painting. I think that’s how it’s solved.”

To me, there is a glaring problem in Werner’s works: they seem to aestheticize a sort of violence. As with Hitchcock’s famous Psycho shower scene, which reduces Janet Leigh to death by a thousand cuts, there is a perverse pleasure in lingering over images of beautiful women in bits.

“My earlier work had more ugliness,” Werner explains, “a different kind of violence. I think these are still kind of violent in ways because of the split. In my earlier work, there was a more expressionist handling of that disruption where I would destroy the face more obviously. These kind of retain their photographic reference. But some of the earlier things, they were actually wiped out. I wasn’t trying to make something ugly, but I was trying to alter the reading, removing the face in different ways.”

To read these works solely as resistance to fashion’s unattainable ideals, or as a pleasurable destruction of traditional beauty conventions, is too one-dimensional. They are that, too. Yet Werner conceives of them as another mode to subvert fashion standing in culturally for desire writ large.

“In spite of the fact that the material I use is drawn from fashion, it’s not something that I grew up looking at,” Werner says.

“I consciously avoided looking at fashion magazines. I thought they were … not anti-feminist, but I resisted them as a feminist. I felt like it was a mistake in values. But now as I use that material, it was so fascinating when I did turn to look at it, having dismissed it and not looked at it for so long. There’s so much seduction in there. As a painter, shape and light and colour — all those things are the language I use. I don’t really think consciously about critiquing the material though in the process of subverting it, which is important to me. There is, I guess, an undercutting of the original toward another end, which is rather open-ended. Shifting the narrative away from Capitalist desire. Although there’s a whole ‘nother conversation about the system of art and art collecting and all that.”

We rest for a while on a painting called Folding Woman (2009), the first in which Werner explicitly began to accentuate the cut. “This was Nicole Kidman, actually,” Werner explains. “I subscribed to Vogue, and the magazine arrived and accidentally had folded exactly like this. So I just taped it on my studio wall and it sat there for years and I did nothing with it. And then one day I was like, ‘I don’t know what to paint, I’ll just paint that,’ and it kind of opened up all of this.”

Looking around at all the beheaded women with orphan limbs induces an almost carnivalesque atmosphere. I chose to solve the withholding of the cuts by interpreting them instead as folds, like the Fold-Ins the cartoonist Al Jaffee made famous on the back pages of Mad Magazine, which revealed a hidden message when the page was folded over.

“There’s no verbal or narrative solution,” Werner tells me. “There’s something about how the pieces come together that, in a sense, answers the problem that’s set up in the painting. In terms of a physical understanding and processing, I believe that if you respond to the images, it’s a physical response to something that’s happening that’s activated in the colour, and the tonalities, and the movement, and composition. Those things we somehow physically understand. Even if it’s not translatable into something that’s coherent in verbal terms. That’s why it’s not verbal. It’s another language.”

I ask if Werner sees painting as a language. “I do. I do, yeah,” she affirms.

“And I think of myself as a kind of formalist, an abstract painter. Even though they’re figurative, it’s very abstract in how I solve the problem. How the colours operate, it’s an abstract language.”◼︎

Call Me When You Start Wearing Red runs January 21st – February 25th, 2023, at Anat Ebgi Gallery.