A favorite of Diane von Furstenberg, modern artist Jeremy Penn has painted Karl Lagerfeld, Kate Moss, Brigitte Bardot and John Galliano dressed as a Bar Mitzvah boy, among many other pop culture figures. Highly collectable, we spoke with the artist to find out more about how he picks his subjects, his creative process and what's to come.
theFashionSpot: Can you tell us a little bit about your background? Did you always think you'd make a career out of art?
Jeremy Penn: I attended art school at a very young age and continued my art education until finally receiving my degree in Fine Arts from Pratt in 2003. In many way I am a dreamer. I never put much thought into the realities of having a “career." I just always knew that painting was an essential part of my being that wouldn’t be sacrificed.
tFS: Do you think that ties into your being born and raised in NYC? How do you think that has affected your career?
JP: New York City is like that interesting-looking girl who has incredible sex appeal. She has multiple ethnicities and is rich with culture. She can open a beer can with her teeth while reciting Lou Reed lyrics but also loves the opera, Matisse and fine art. There is an unexplained energy to New York City. It almost seems that New York City is this mother that brings out the true soul in each of us.
tFS: Can you talk to us about your process when you're creating a new piece from start to finish?
JP: Someone once compared my artistic process to method acting. If I am painting a series of portraits inspired by 1950s/1960s Parisian culture, I will completely immerse myself in stimuli from the time period. At risk of sounding too cliche, I will be listening to Serge Gainsbourg while painting or ending the day with a Bardot film. Us artists are very sensitive individuals. That sensitivity makes us highly affected by the energy our surrounding environment. In my earlier years, this was more of a curse. It wasn’t until later when I realized how powerful of a gift this sensitivity can be.
tFS: Is that process similar for both your pop culture pieces and non-pop culture like, for example, the painted portraits of the survivors of commercial sex exploitation?
JP: The process is very similar. Every painting I do begins with research. Some of the harshest topics make for the best paintings because the work really emotes. I love doing charity work and being able to contribute with my artwork. One of the most powerful pieces I have done was for New York City’s Freedom Week where I painted the portrait of former Sudanese child soldier turned political activist and hip-hop artist Emmanuel Jal. Jal’s story is truly astonishing and can be seen in the award-winning documentary War Child.
tFS: Speaking of inspiring figures, in the pop culture realm, can you highlight some of the fashion figures that you've featured and what attracted you to them?
JP: Two of my favorite paintings are of Karl Lagerfeld and Diane Von Furstenberg. Karl is an enigma. A man who’s iconic monochromatic style screams strength yet he understands the beautiful mind and sensuous body of a woman. Diane, well, Diane is Diane. She is Woman; a modern-day goddess. Her beauty transcends the conventional definition of aesthetics. Her spirit is that of a deity.
tFS: Have you heard from any of the figures you've featured?
JP: Yes, Diane Von Furstenberg. The painting, aptly titled “DVF” was later acquired by Diane and is now part of her extraordinary modern art collection. I have worked personally with some of my subjects and due to ongoing projects, I need to keep the names anonymous for now.
tFS: Is it hard for you to part with works when you sell them?
JP: Parting with the work is the easy part. It is the signing of the work and deeming it finished the challenge. There are two schools of thought about when a painting is finished. Jackson Pollock said, “You know a painting is finished the same way you know sex is finished,” while da Vinci said, “Paintings are never finished, only abandoned.” Much like da Vinci, I feel as if this relationship between me and the painting are having some dramatic premature ending to a beautiful romance. A new painting begins, a new love is forged. And the process continues.
tFS: Interesting. To that end, are there any that you refused to sell?
JP: There is one painting I refuse to sell. It is called “Timeline.” I painted this in 2009 and reminds me everyday to take risks with my work. This painting was made using encaustic wax and ink and after building several layers over three weeks, I lit the entire painting on fire. I had no idea what the results might be. With the flames out and the wax still soft, I took out my carving tools and began incising the painting. I have been offered a lot for this one, but this piece is priceless to me and will always remain in my studio.
tFS: What subject have you found to be the most inspiring?
JP: It has to be Brigitte Bardot. I have painted her more than anyone else. I revel in the strength, the clarity of her gaze, the appraising, almost confrontational depth that her eyes seem to have. Her face speaks volumes about the way she lived (and continues to live) her life; a life lived to the full, a life of personal liberty and of being true to herself.
tFS: Given your subjects, do you actively follow pop culture?
JP: How can you avoid it? It lives in our Facebook timelines and Instagram feeds. We are living pop culture.
tFS: Speaking of that, I noticed that you're active in social media. Do you see that as being a critical part of making a living as a working artist these days?
JP: At this very moment, we are living in a creative revolution. Social media has the power to propel a small idea into a financially backed business with a few clicks of a button. It is a fascinating time. I know artists whose entire careers are based upon their social media presence. Is that a bad thing? Not if you are capable of managing your career. However, I have seen a lot of instant art celebrities whose works have shown to not have legs. Being the “Gangnam Style” of the art world is not something to aspire to. The importance of gallery representation and healthy growth as an artist is something that can’t be overlooked. Yes, I am active on social media, but I am also affiliated with a handful of art galleries both domestic and abroad along with a professional art rep who assists in navigating my career.
tFS: Would you ever create a piece on commission? Any figure you would never paint?
JP: I am often asked to do commissions and occasionally I will take on some. However, I really need to get to know the subject before painting them. I am not the kind of artist who you can just give a picture to and have me paint it. I have been approached many times before to do that, sometimes with very attractive sums. I simply can’t do it. The reason being is that the essence of my subject would be non-existent. Research is a big part of my process and it is critical for me to feel the spirit of my subject. This adds a level of authenticity to my work that I believe to be most important element. Regarding any figures I would never paint, sometimes the most taboo subjects are the most fun to paint. I have a bit of a twisted sense of humor with a passion to bring topics to the forefront with a hint of irony. For example, I work with the ADL and for one of its NYC fundraisers, I painted fashion designer John Galliano dressed as a Bar Mitzvah boy during the height of his anti-Semitic controversy.
tFS: Can you tell us about any pieces you have in the works?
JP: Be prepared to see some sculptural work in 2014. It is time to bring my subjects into a new dimension.
tFS: What's your price range and where could people learn more about pieces you have for sale?
JP: Prices range from $3,000 for smaller works and go up from there. To inquire about about any specific painting, please contact my studio directly through my website jeremypenn.com.