Where the Sky Meets the Sea: Jennifer Guidi Leans Into Beauty
LOS ANGELES — At a time of turmoil in the world — inflation, political division, military conflict overseas — Jennifer Guidi’s artwork can at first seem utopian, Pollyannaish, just plain pretty.
And Guidi makes no bones about being inspired by suns, moons, flowers, birds and rainbows. Nor does she apologize for liking the color pink.
But while easy on the eyes, her paintings and sculpture — which go on view Saturday at Kordansky Gallery here — belie a depth and complexity that curators have increasingly come to recognize. “It’s more than it initially appears,” said Heidi Zuckerman, the director of the Orange County Museum, who is organizing a Guidi show next fall. “Part of that is the complexity of the underpainting and what she hides underneath the surface. I think that’s an interesting metaphor for women and the essence of who we are at our core.”
The pleasing quality of Guidi’s work also masks an edge — her struggle to be respected as a female artist in a field that remains male-dominated; to have her paintings taken seriously as substantive rather than decorative; and to establish a professional identity independent from that of her former husband, the higher profile (and higher-priced) artist Mark Grotjahn.
“Women are so often defined by who they we’re with,” Guidi said in a recent interview at her studio. “I don’t want to be pigeonholed.”
Over the last several years, Guidi, 50, has been establishing herself as a success in her own right. In 2018, she was taken on by the mega gallery Gagosian — which also represents Grotjahn — and since 2016 has been represented by Kordansky, where her current exhibition, “In the Heart of the Sun,” takes up most of the gallery.
She recently closed a solo exhibition at the Long Museum in China. And her forthcoming show at the Orange County Museum, which opened its new building last month, will mark her first institutional exhibition in the United States.
One of her paintings, “Elements of All Entities,” sold last fall at Christie’s for $625,000, more than four times the low estimate of $150,000 (her work sells privately for $100,000 to about $500,000). Among the major collectors who have bought her work are Steven A. Cohen and Maurice Marciano.
“She is straddling the space between the spiritual and the hallucinatory,” said David Kordansky, the gallery’s owner. “They’re very much these meditations on the ambience and the atmosphere of our West Coast environs — where the sky meets the sea.
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“So many artists have notions of technology and fast images,” he continued, whereas Guidi’s paintings are “almost like these poetic opportunities in which to slow yourself down and get lost in the actual pleasures of looking.”
The acceleration in the artist’s career coincides with the development of Guidi’s spiritual practice and her move from representational to abstract painting. Inspired by the stitching on the backs of Moroccan carpets and Tibetan monks’ mandalas — where patterns radiate out from one central point — Guidi about a decade ago began mixing sand with paint.
She also engages in chromatic explorations (lately moving into fluorescent pinks, blues and yellows) and studies chakra techniques that connect to the body’s energy centers.
“I’m thinking of color as a way to connect — a way to engage — that invites people into a sense of aliveness,” Guidi said. “More colors. More dots. More energy. More vibrant. More vibration.”
She meditates every morning and collects crystals, influences that give her paintings a mesmerizing tranquillity that have caught the attention of collectors and curators. Several major institutions have acquired Guidi’s work, including the Hammer Museum, the Dallas Art Museum and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.
“She’s an important part of the L.A. art scene,” said the collector Susan Gersh, who with her husband David bought Guidi’s “Pink Sky Mountain” in 2017. “It’s very ethereal looking, very romantic. At different times of day, the colors change.”
The show that opens this week is the first time that Guidi is showing a large body of sculptures — enlarged rocks and crystals to which she has added sand mandalas, cast in bronze and colored with car paint.
Wearing paint-splattered clogs, and sipping water from a glass jar, Guidi at first comes across as quiet and careful. That’s always been her nature. “I grew up extremely shy — it would take me a little while to get comfortable with someone,” she said. “I think a lot of artists are introverts.”
Born in Redondo Beach, Calif., in 1972, Guidi always knew she wanted to be an artist. Her father, who managed country clubs, did a little on-stage singing and dancing. Her mother, who worked in retail, loved dance.
She took art classes in high school and went on to receive a master’s degree from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago in 1998. To earn money during college and graduate school, Guidi worked painting sets in theaters and faux finishes in homes.
Having studied traditional drawing and painting, Guidi started out as a representational painter, but eventually realized that wasn’t quite the right fit. “I was focused on making things as realistic as possible,” she said. “But I never felt like it was my voice. I was recording what I saw, but I didn’t feel like I was translating that into something that was purely mine.”
In her early 30’s, Guidi had two solo shows of her representational paintings at the ACME gallery in Los Angeles. But her career stalled after that; ACME never committed and no other gallery expressed interest.
“It was extremely frustrating,” Guidi said. “I continued to paint on my own but, to be honest, I gave up on having a painting career.”
To some extent, there was freedom in this, one that allowed her to explore abstraction. “I closed my studio door and didn’t let anyone in — no more noise, no more external voices,” she said. “Finally, I found my own voice. And I knew it. I then started to invite people in and they actually got the work. They responded to what I was trying to do and felt a calm, meditative presence.”
Guidi was 42 when she began to exhibit again, eventually earning the attention of gallerists Nathalie Karg, Massimo De Carlo, Kordansky, Almine Rech and Gagosian.
Guidi was one of six female artists from Los Angeles who participated in the Afghan Carpet Project at the Hammer in 2014, designing rugs that would then be handwoven in Afghanistan. “Her carpet came from a watercolor she made while we were there, a grid of women in the light-blue full-length khimar,” said the curator Ali Subotnick, who organized that project. “She quietly absorbs the world around her and distills it into meditative and hypnotic, often pulsating imagery.”
On social media, Guidi has developed a loyal fan base, in part because she shares videos of her works in progress with her nearly 84,000 Instagram followers, which Millicent Wilner, a Gagosian director, described as “generous.”
“That openness is deeply contemporary,” Wilner said.
There will always be those who dismiss work with such wide appeal. In 2017, the dealer Stefan Simchowitz famously ranted on Facebook about Guidi’s being the latest trendy trophy. “Can you get me a Jen Guidi, can you get me a Jen Guidi, can you get me a Jen Guidi?” he said in a subsequent interview with ArtNews, mocking collectors.
But Guidi has just kept returning to her studio with her typical quiet resolve. “When I drive home and see a sunset against the mountains, it’s hard not to have that stay with you,” Guidi said. “It’s about the work and it’s about enjoying this process, being in love with coming here every day, and trying to turn off everything else.”