43 Jennifer Nehrbass

“My experiences as a woman in the world are not unique, the more specific I am the more universal the experience. We all feel joy, terror, pain, rage and ecstasy. . . . I hope with every view of my work people have questions they didn’t expect to be asked. I hope they are poked and prodded to expand their notion of portraiture and narrative”

Jennifer Nehrbass is a fascinating painter from Albuquerque, New Mexico. On her website, she describes her work as a form of Magical Realism. Her style and methods combine Cubist collage with Surreal landscapes, and intensely expressive figures, full of mystery, at times reminiscent of Andrew Wyeth. Before launching her career as a painter, she spent a decade as a design director for Ralph Lauren. Her work is collected and exhibited throughout the US and Europe. Jennifer won the Florence Henry Award and two grants, all from the U. of New Mexico. She has been featured in many periodicals, including American Art Collector, Plastik, Bliss, Juxtapoz, Default, Empty, Whitehot, THE Magazine, and the Albuquerque Tribune.

'Across from the Prison, Beside the Great Lake', 2011

Jennifer grew up in West Bend, Wisconsin. In this interview with Leah Constantine (Goodwin Fine Art Gallery, 2015) Jennifer explains how she grew up as an artist, "My earliest memories always included creating things with my hands whether it was stitching a scene on fabric, creating clay dioramas or painting anything that was available."

But, she resisted the title/label of 'artist' once she entered college. She earned a degree in art and textile design from the U of Wisconsin, and began working for Ralph Lauren. Starting around the year 2000 she decided to enroll at NYU's graduate school for the arts. In this interview with Claudio Parentela (The eXTra finGer, 2007), Jennifer explains the circumstance that led to her decision:

"I started painting when I met someone at my corporate job who just graduated from art school. We decided to swap part of my apartment for part of her painting studio. Once I caught the urge to paint, I decided everything else was a diversion."

Earning her masters in 2003, she then enrolled almost right after for another graduate degree program from the U of New Mexico, earning her second masters in painting in 2006.

"My high school self would have said I was an artist. The years working in design I would have said no. When I quit my full time employment to go to graduate school I remember the difficulty of voicing the  proclamation, “I am an artist”, when asked what I was studying. Just being creative or talented in a certain medium isn’t always a qualifier for being an “Artist”. I still prefer to call myself a painter."

'One Thousand Sofias', 2007

Jennifer describes how graduate school helped her (Constantine, 2015):

"In my undergraduate years I was drawn to all elements of design, especially to fashion and textiles. A well-conceived jacket or elegantly designed chair inspired me to think beauty was possible in all aspects of the day to day. After years of working in the fashion industry I was reacquainted with my love of painting. I realized to push my work conceptually, graduate school was my only chance. It gave me a gestational period to concentrate on nothing but my work. Intellectually graduate school helped me to formulate a personal dialogue I could use to talk about my work. It showed me the power of self-editing."

In this interview with J.F. Pierets (Et Alors? Magazine, undated), Jennifer explains in part what her art is about:

"I try to reexamine how women are portrayed both in current culture and throughout art history. I am interested in expressing what it feels like to be held up to current ideals of beauty. I create narratives that illustrate a woman’s experience using emotions such as humor, fear, or melancholy.  What other thoughts, desires or contributions are ignored when one is overwhelmed with one’s one image?"


Jennifer describes how she finds inspiration (Constantine, 2015):

"The beauty of inspiration is that it can come unexpectedly. A bright blue sneaker, Mexican pottery, a vintage gold belt can find their way into one of my paintings. The paint departments at hardware stores scornfully turn their backs when I take handfuls of sample paint colors. The offices of my doctors and dentist are targets for magazine thievery if I find an interesting advert or photo."

'Last Run of the Colorado', 2012

Photographs play a large part to Jennifer's inspiration. She says (Constantine, 2015):

"I have always looked to photography as inspiration. I love the way photography can simultaneously flatten and abstract an image. I am not interested in painting from life. I find that notion outdated and stifling. We live in an image driven culture with a supply of photography that is fluid and plentiful. The use of collage allows more immediacy to the work. Ideas can come and go without the months of commitment that some of my paintings require. I tried to create collages entirely in Photoshop but I found I didn’t have the patience or the skill to do so. I finally decided to use the computer as a starting point and finish with the cut and paste approach. Above all I am a painter and there is a language to paint. A flat area of color can create meaning as much as the photorealism used in the figure. I still find it a thrill to see if I can paint elements I have used in the collage. Painting allows me to play with scale. Collage can be limited by the printer size or the size of the found image. Painting also can have a seamless effect that is harder to achieve in collage. Hard lines can be minimized or emphasized depending on the desired look."

'When I Stand Beside Her'

Jennifer also tells Constantine about her process:

"I generally start with an idea of what I want the painting to look like or say. Often I respond to an art historical work that I feel would be interesting to reinterpret. I pull images from various sources including my own photography. What makes me respond to one image rather than another could simply be the color, the scale or the lighting. Many times I have the idea for the painting conceived before I have the found images. At other times the found image could inspire the painting. Each work has its own process."

She explains further (Pierets):

"The photorealistic aspect occurs primarily with the figures in the painting. I choose to have them painted this way to represent the physicality of being alive. We can pinch our skin and know we are physically here. The physical aspect to life is tangible. To contradict the tangible I place figures within abstract areas that refer to the thoughts desires, dreams and perceptions of life. The viewing of my work is meant to be a push and pull exercise between these differing painting styles."

'One Hundred Views of Trinidad'

Jennifer explains how she's been inspired by the artist Cindy Sherman and the writer Margaret Atwood (Constantine, 2015):

"In previous works I looked to Cindy Sherman and her ability to transform herself into varied personalities. Rather than using found photography I created self-portraits that transformed me into other personas. These paintings pushed viewers to reconsider how women were viewed through art history and contemporary culture. Margaret Attwood’s strong feminist voice in “The Penelopiad” inspired a series of works I call my cameo series. This story paid tribute to Penelope and to her twelve maidens killed by Odysseus. It inspired me to examine how women are overlooked in history and the power of one’s voice to determine agency and destiny"

In her interview with Parentela she also lists as inspiration the filmmakers Hitchcock, Kubrick and Jeunet, the writers Kazuo Ishiguro and Isabel Allende, and artists Jennifer Pastor, Matthew Barney, Philip-Lorca DiCorcia, and Louise Bourgeois.

'Water at the Door,' 2014

Jennifer talks about why she moved to New Mexico (Pierets):

"I love living in New Mexico. It may seem cliché but the light is dramatic and the landscape boundless. The contrasts of people and their culture are always inspiring. We are at the center of the oldest cultures in the USA with the ancestral pueblo people, but we are also the birth place of the atomic bomb. One has the ability to isolate when necessary and engage with culture when inspired to do so."

'Exiting Empire', 2014

Jennifer also says this about the art market and changing trends (Constantine, 2015),

"Figurative painting moves in and out of fashion. The challenge is to stay steady with purpose and passion. I love painting portraits and figurative elements and I understand there will be an audience who just can’t embrace this element in contemporary art. If you follow art trends you lose your footing. The excitement of creating the next painting keeps me motivated despite lack of sales or rejections"

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'Delilah y Delilah', 2012

'The Internationalist', 2012

'The Gatekeeper', 2016

'Tasting Cherries', 2016


'Pretty Cheeks'

'Personal Waterloo', 2012

'Copious Empire'

'Just Shy of Fatal'

'Tasting Juniper', 2010


'Call O Wilde', 2012

'Cleopatra', 2015

'The Conductor', 2015

'Nineteen Temptations'

'Land of Plenty Good