Jessie Homer French Paints Infernos however She Sees Rainbows


On a sunny autumn morning, in Jessie Homer French’s garage-studio, up a number of miles of mountain switchbacks from Palm Desert, Calif., a dozen canvases are propped on cabinets in varied levels of completion. Most are landscapes. Three depict cemeteries, a recurrent topic for the 83-year-old self-taught artist. Standing out among the many browns and the greens, nevertheless, are two photos of wildfires, in livid tones of orange, yellow and black.

Leaping infernos have lit up Homer French’s work for years. In “1st Presbyterian” (1994), flames lick via the door jambs of a white-painted church. In “Slash + Burn” (2000), smoke curls up from freshly set fires in a not too long ago deforested woodland. Within the extra dramatic “Boreal Burning” (2022) — 5 ft huge — the sky above burning timber is darkish with smoke. In “Blowout” (2020), it’s an oil rig that’s combusting.

In Homer French’s exhibition “Regular Landscapes,” opening Jan. 16 at Numerous Small Fires gallery in Los Angeles, we observe solely the aftermath of fires. In a single new portray, “After Burn and Jimson Weed,” wildflowers bloom from the scorched earth. In one other, “Decrease Rush Creek” (1994), blackened tree trunks spike into the sky whereas trout leap from the water. Life finds its means via the desolation.

“All people retains saying that I paint fireplace as a result of Ed Ruscha was a pal of ours, and he at all times painted fireplace,” says Homer French, referring to the eminent pop conceptualist whose retrospective on the Museum of Trendy Artwork included work of each Norms diner and the Los Angeles County Museum of Artwork aflame. “Really, I began portray fireplace within the ’80s. I used to be mountain climbing via a pal’s ranch sooner or later in Franklin Canyon, in Beverly Hills. I noticed prisoners working with firemen, doing a prescription burn. It was so lovely.”

Homer French resides in a mountain wilderness, dry and sparsely populated, with panoramic views that embody hazy intimations of gridded settlement within the flatlands under. It’s excessive desert; ocotillos, scrubby junipers and sagebrush bushes dot the earth between the pinyon pines that give her unincorporated neighborhood its identify.

Pinyon Crest is hidden from the freeway, and its residents reside largely hidden from each other. To get there, most guests will drive up from Palm Desert, a Coachella Valley metropolis dominated by golf resorts and gated communities. In Pinyon Crest, and in its adjoining settlement, Pinyon Pines, one senses that the residents have rejected clubbiness in favor of invisibility and anonymity.

Homer French, who was born in New York, moved to the excessive desert seven years in the past along with her husband, the British expertise agent and film producer Robin French. After his retirement in 1996, she tells me, “Robin’s gypsy ft” took the couple from Beverly Hills to Vancouver Island to western Oregon to La Quinta, a resort metropolis near Palm Desert — “nevertheless it was too suburban for Robin. He simply couldn’t bear it.” As a substitute, up within the Santa Rosa Mountains, they discovered a Pueblo-style dwelling with a pool and a spectacular view. Since Robin died in 2021, at 84, Homer French has lived right here alone, with out web or a cellphone. (“They may destroy humanity,” she tells me.) Her assistant, Nich McElroy, visits as soon as per week, to relay emails and handle her newly flourishing profession.

Straight backed and with birdlike poise, Homer French initiatives a pioneer self-sufficiency, as if she’d be equally able to darning a sock, milking a goat or driving a horse-drawn cart. It’s little shock that she’s an avid fly-fisher, and, earlier than Robin’s loss of life, would spend as much as 100 days a 12 months standing in rivers within the japanese Sierras, or in Oregon or British Columbia, casting dry flies over trout. Nonetheless, she claims, “I’m a whole incompetent. Robin took care of all the things. I don’t suppose I can reside up right here alone any extra. It’s actually powerful.”

For many of her life, Homer French labored with out a lot expectation or hope of consideration or gross sales or essential acclaim. When she sought out a gallery, within the Nineteen Seventies, it was solely as a result of work had been piling up in her studio and he or she wanted them out of the best way. She appears mystified that an artist would need something apart from to be left alone to color.

“I paint my life, my stuff. I actually, actually care concerning the portray turning out. I’m actually upset when it doesn’t. However I don’t really feel any want to speak. I’m sorry. That’s not the purpose.”

It was Robin who drew consideration to his spouse’s work. Credit score additionally goes to an previous pal of theirs, the artist Billy Al Bengston, who launched her work to his gallerists, Esther Kim Varet and Joseph Varet, of Numerous Small Fires (named after a guide by Ruscha). Since 2017, when she first exhibited there, her work has reached audiences all over the world. Final summer season, two of her work had been reproduced as billboards beside the Excessive Line in New York. In 2022, she exhibited in the Venice Biennale, and final fall a number of her latest work was included within the Hammer Museum’s biennial “Made in LA.” Each of these surveys proposed different narratives of artwork, elevating the work of variously female-identifying, self-taught, geographically dispersed or Indigenous artists and makers. Homer French’s work match proper in.

The much less Homer French is aware of concerning the enterprise aspect of her profession, she says, the higher. “I’m unsure that monetary success is nice for a painter. It is perhaps good for any person who’s making one thing actually sophisticated, like balloon canines,” she says, winkingly, referring to the expensively produced sculptures of Jeff Koons. “However for an everyday abnormal painter who hangs out in her storage, and desperately tries to make one thing that she likes, I don’t know if a variety of success could be good for them.” She provides, “It gained’t change me in any respect.”

Since Robin died, Homer French tells me, she has fished solely hardly ever. I too wish to fish, and Homer French mentioned that there have been trout in Lake Hemet close by — large ones, together with the freakishly brilliant yellow “lightning trout,” a genetic mutation that’s stocked in sure lakes and reservoirs. She agreed to take me. She additionally warned that on such an unseasonably heat day we in all probability wouldn’t catch something.

Accompanying us was her son, Spencer, 51, a monetary adviser in Portland, Ore. In his Jeep, bouncing down the unpaved street to the freeway, Homer French instructed me that she has at all times fished; she remembers catching a smallmouth bass in a creek along with her fingers when she was about 3 years previous. When she was 5, towards the tip of World Warfare II, her father — a German émigré — relocated his household from New York Metropolis to a country cabin within the Adirondacks as a result of he was satisfied the Germans would bomb town. An solely youngster, she was left to roam the countryside. “There weren’t any telephones,” she says. “I keep in mind after I was 12 two guys got here and put large poles up the valley, after which we obtained electrical energy. Earlier than that, it was simply me and the wilderness. It was nice!”

When Homer French was 18, she moved to New York Metropolis with a boyfriend. Modeling was an expedient means for her to earn money. Within the Sixties, she appeared in a swimsuit problem of Sports activities Illustrated and started saving her cash with the ambition of working full time as an artist.

Her first marriage, to an actor, took her throughout the nation to Los Angeles; after they had been divorced she rented a tiny hillside cabin in Echo Park. It was there that she met Robin; launched by buddies, he knocked on her door sooner or later when she was sick with a fever and proceeded to take care of her. They had been engaged only a few weeks later, and married on Valentine’s Day in 1969.

For his or her honeymoon, Robin’s purchasers Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor provided their property in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, the place they met Bengston. (“It was an enormous place,” Homer French says.)

By him, they met different colourful personalities of the “Cool Faculty” artwork scene that had cohered within the Sixties across the Ferus Gallery and the scruffy seashore neighborhood of Venice. The Frenches purchased a home on two and a half acres in Coldwater Canyon, in Beverly Hills, including a subterranean guesthouse and a screening room. Robin rescued a condemned decagonal burger stand from a strip mall and resurrected it within the backyard as a portray studio for Jessie.

“Our gates had been at all times open,” she recollects. “Folks would come and play tennis and swim and eat and drink and play with the youngsters and take eggs from the chickens. It was a distinct world.” Artists together with Ruscha, Bengston, Charles Arnoldi, Joe Goode, and Don Bachardy (along with his associate, Christopher Isherwood) had been all common company on the Frenches’ dinner events and film screenings.

Homer French’s folksy work appear to have virtually nothing in widespread along with her buddies’ experiments with unconventional topics and media. In an essay in Homer French’s new monograph, the curator Francesco Bonami writes that her work “emanate the luminosity of a relentless optimism.” Her lack of art-school training might have set her aside however, Homer French factors out, each artist is self-educated. (She discovered from a guide Bengston gave her, Ralph Mayer’s “The Artist’s Handbook of Supplies and Strategies,” which she makes use of to this present day.)

Homer French could be self-deprecating. “I can’t draw,” she says, “though I do strive.” Her anti-perspectival photos — scant shadows, crisply delineated types — are sometimes in comparison with the work of people artists or naïve painters, from Grandma Moses to Henri Rousseau (whom Homer French admits as an affect). The massive cloth “mapestries” that she embroiders with topographical particulars add to her affiliation with conventional craftspeople. However the trendy, compositional directness of Alice Neel, R.B. Kitaj and Alex Katz can be mirrored in Homer French’s work.

When she paints white wind generators or Stealth bombers (each recurrent motifs) it’s exhausting to inform if they’re emblems of human abasement or objects of magnificence. Regardless of their narrative readability, I remark, her viewpoint isn’t clear. “To you or to me,” she responds.

AT LAKE HEMET, Homer French pulls from her vest pocket a small field marked “lake flies” and settles on a fluffy, olive-green “woolly bugger.” Dry fly-fishing on the water’s floor appeals to her as a result of it’s simpler to launch fish unhurt than with bait fishing. “You are feeling such as you’re discovering the thriller of what’s hidden beneath the water. ”

A lot of her work are structured round this division between the seen world and what lies beneath. In “Excessive Nation Brookies” (2020), the canvas is neatly bisected to indicate the mountain panorama above the water and the trout inside it. And there are a number of work of cemeteries during which coffins are proven underneath the bottom, their occupants mendacity peacefully inside. The thriller of loss of life is as impenetrable because the depths of a chilly mountain lake.

It’s irritating fishing; a breeze whips throughout the lake, tangling my line, however by no means cooling the water sufficient to entice the trout near the shore. Homer French will not be dispirited, even after we determine to stow our rods and climb again into Spencer’s Jeep.

On the journey dwelling, Homer French remarks on the greenness of the sagebrush, after one of many wettest years in latest reminiscence. Just a few weeks earlier than, Tropical Storm Hilary had brought on flooding, mudflows and a sinkhole within the Coachella Valley. Homer French has 5 grandchildren and, given her preoccupation with local weather change and battle and the human degradation of the pure world, she says, “Each time a brand new member of the household comes alongside, I feel, ‘Effectively, there’s another particular person to fret about.’ Within the ’60s and ’70s, a variety of us really thought the world was changing into a greater place, and there may even be an finish to battle. What dummies we had been, huh?”

Spencer says: “You let me know that you just by no means stopped worrying about your youngsters. You additionally misplaced your firstborn youngster. That had a profound impact on you.” Homer French tells how her daughter Valentina was born in 1970 with cerebral palsy, and lived solely till she was 6. “Funeral” (1978), which depicts a recent grave piled with flowers and a gaggle of mourners, was the primary time Homer French would paint a cemetery, a matter-of-fact file of indescribable disappointment.

Then we move ribbonwood timber, and he or she notes that they’ve much more flowers this 12 months than ordinary. “It positive is fairly up right here although, isn’t it?”

Greater than an elegy to what has been misplaced, Homer French’s traditional-seeming work — like her life — appears to be like to the long run, and finds methods to honor magnificence in a world inclined towards devastation.



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