By: Katy Durbin
Jay DeFeo’s The Jewel is a graceful reminder that paint does not always denote a two-dimensional surface. Rather, it challenges the constraints of the canvas, as well as the physicality of the paint itself. It is often easy to assume that paint is meant to color, that paint is a means of conveying color, rather than physicality and substance. Yet, when one observes the cracked surface and elevated masses that make up DeFeo’s massive, six foot gem, it is impossible to separate the beauty of the image from the grotesqueness of the clumped and dried paint. On closer inspection, the paint, which is superficially white yet gains scarlet red and rusty brown qualities lower down, begins to resemble an opened wound, a mass of torn flesh. One can easily connect this appearance with the savage slashes the artist probably created with a palate knife, so as to cut through the partially-dried layers, exposing oozing oils underneath.
The image is a complete irony, as the viewer, on first glance, is led to believe that this is only a beautiful object. The image, when viewed from afar, is of a white star, a religious radiance that conjures thoughts of heavenly images and the iconic “white light”. Yet the piece is almost festering; it is in a state of decay. The clotted, rust-red paint eerily mimics flesh, contrasting the smooth, white skin that remains unbroken in certain areas. The sacred object is an object of degradation. The actions taken to construct such a structural object, only to break it open, almost seems like an act of defilement. Yet the image would be incomplete and uninteresting without this action; the paint would not reveal its materiality.
Jay Defeo’s works are generally architecture, and draw influence from the concept of structure. Of her other works at LACMA, two are works of photography and one is a graphite drawing. Defeo experiments with the idea of broken objects and images, utilizing common materials to create simple ideas, which she then breaks down, showing the materiality of the substances. In one untitled work, DeFeo photographs a sculpture of herself, crossing mediums by reducing a three-dimensional object to a two-dimensional format.The Jewel conveys this same idea, though by reversing it, using paint and canvas as sculptural elements. This novel approach to painting made the work stand out from other pieces, and gave the oil medium a new layer of complexity.