Let’s be honest, understanding abstract art can seem like an art unto itself, a thing requiring a manual or a guru, a mind-reader, even. Often it’s something viewers approach sideways, brows furrowed, arms folded, wondering: What exactly am I looking at?
“For me,” explained Denver abstract expressionist, Jennifer Bobola, “I see abstraction as being the same as realism—it’s all real; it’s just shapes.”
Make sense? Clear as…mud? Well, here’s another way to relate: Think music, then take a look at Bobola’s flowing lines and lush shapes melding into almost-objects, and consider that she sees painting as a kind of visual music—Jazz, mostly.
Take, for example, the painting, “Chains of Love,” a subtle play of earthy tones set off by deep, rich darker hues. The only realistic aspect in this painting is a set of stairs swirling up to the right, into the light, and the harmonious chains weaving throughout: pale blue, white, gray and golden interlocking bands of color. This painting was conceived over the course of several days, first, with layers of torn paper affixed to the canvas and left to dry, then with washes of color, and, finally, finished with those defining gestural shapes. Each day, working on this painting, Bobola listened to the Jazz, Soul and Blues inspired electronica music of Massive Attack, particularly the song, “What Your Soul Sings.”
“When I’m working on a painting, I’ll put on music,” she said. “Sometimes I’ll put on one song a bunch of times so that when I go back to work the next day and hear that song, it’s like going home; the song sets the tone.”
While lots of artists listen to music while painting, Bobola’s connection is more concrete: she’s been playing the saxophone since the age of 10, studied it in college, and currently performs with two bands. For her, the connection between music and painting is, in fact, so intertwined that she believes there isn’t much of a difference between the two; it’s the same language: notes, rhythms, and progressions equal design, color, shapes, and lines.
More than reciprocal influences—music and painting are, to Bobola, alternative forms of conversation. Whether painting or playing on stage before a live audience, she uses the same thoughtful approach, pulling together and making sense of seemingly disparate concepts. It is the ability to find connections that is deeply rooted in Bobola’s subconscious; her family moved often throughout her childhood, creating an ever shifting landscape of towns, communities and people where only music and art were a constant. After high school, she chose the Utrecht School for the Arts in the Netherlands but after just seven months, so she dropped out, feeling that the curriculum was too traditional. Where she did find room to explore was Utrecht’s local band scene, which provided enough experience and encouragement playing the sax to convince her to pursue music and art back in the States. Ultimately, she landed in Denver and enrolled at Metro State College, where she started with a double major in art and music, but soon opted for music over painting.
It wasn’t until after college, when, watching a painting demo by Denver artist Kevin Weckbach, that both her passions began to come back together. “I was trying to figure out what I was doing with my painting,” she recalled. “Kevin did a sketch and started talking about abstract art and it felt like he was saying what I knew unconsciously. He put everything into words, and I was able to take what he was saying and put it into my painting. After having that abstract conversation, I was able relate painting to Jazz and make it all work.”
The painting, “Something the Boy Said” evolved out of hearing Weckbach’s talk, coupled with the song of the same name by Sting, as well as a sketch—one of the only times she’s actually worked from one. “The sketch made me loosen up,” she said, even though, initially she was worried that it would make her over-work her painting. “I worry about that; I don’t want to lose the rawness. It’s that artist’s struggle. In music we see today musicians becoming too commercial and too worried about getting it perfect that they lose their rawness.”
Bobola’s constant searching surely will keep her restless spirit alive and help prevent her from ever totally working it out. Lately she says she’s ‘flirting’ with realism but not actually dancing with realism. “I don’t want to spell it out ever, but that’s what I’m moving towards,” she said. “Red Buffalo” is part of a series that is taking her in the direction of almost realism, as is “The Lounge,” a geometric interior, washed in a late, bright light that slowly reveals an undefined, reclining male nude.
“That’s me trying to be as realistic as I could,” she said. “I liked the idea because I like to paint with these dimensions when I’m being abstract.”
And yet she remains firmly rooted in abstraction, and her love of experimenting with color, brushwork, and theory. Most recently, that experimentation brought forth the painting “Amplified Fusion.” “It’s interesting, a new style, a kind of scrapping thing I learned from taking a class with Jeff Wenzell. Usually I have an idea when I sit down, but not with this one,” she said. “This is the freest. I think I’m on to something. I’m just not sure what it is.”
There’s one thing for certain: it won’t take long before Jennifer Bobola figures it out.