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An artist in the thick of it

Only months out of graduate school, painter Jeni Spota had her first solo gallery show. Not that unusual, perhaps, in an art world that mirrors the broader culture’s lust for youth and novelty. The show, at Chinatown’s Sister gallery, sold out before it opened.

A few months later, Spota had a solo exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago, part of a series featuring emerging area artists. Such a show, early in a career, is also becoming less out-of-the-ordinary, but hers was the first in the series, recalls curator Julie Rodrigues Widholm, “where I had to borrow every piece from collectors, major collectors,” most notably Paris-based Francois Pinault, and L.A.'s Dean Valentine and Amy Adelson. “Word had gotten out.”

A Project Room exhibition featuring four of Spota’s paintings on canvas and one cast in bronze with a silver patina just closed at the Santa Monica Museum of Art. Four new paintings will go on view Sept. 12 in the artist’s second solo show at Sister, which is changing its name to Kathryn Brennan Gallery. The largest piece was just bought by London-based collector Charles Saatchi.

Rapid success distinguishes Spota, who moved to L.A. last year, from the flood of aspiring artists released annually from MFA programs nationwide, but more than her blossoming career, it’s the tone and technique of her work that set her apart. Spota’s paintings are small, sincere and strangely anachronistic. They seem to occupy radically different time zones and psychic spaces at once. Lush, gooey, heaving with motion and emotion, the paintings are physically immediate, while summoning imagery from religious iconography of centuries past: Christ’s baptism, crucifixion and deposition, Adam and Eve, the Virgin Mary, St. Francis.

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“Everyone working here wanted to lick the paintings,” says Rodrigues Widholm. The surfaces “look like frosting.”

“The work is almost goofy -- the gloopiness of it, the heavy texture combined with the tiny figures. There is a kind of tension between the seriousness of her subject and the way she’s depicting it. She’s pushing it, and evolving and changing, while already having developed a mature vocabulary. For such a young artist, she really has a voice. She found it early on.”

Spota, 27, grew up on Long Island and graduated from the State University of New York at Purchase in 2004 as a painter of large, flat, poetic abstractions. After a year off, she enrolled at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and started making big, “washy,” black and white figurative paintings of stills from films by Pier Paolo Pasolini.

“I knew there was something in his films that I definitely wanted to hold onto, but I just couldn’t put my hands around it. They were bad paintings,” says Spota, laughing, curled casually on the couch of the Echo Park apartment she shares with her boyfriend, Ian Hokin, also an artist.

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After a “really awful” critique in the fall of her second year, she reversed course, embarking on a series of small, colorful, thickly painted canvases. And instead of painting multiple film stills, she drew from a single one, a scene from the director’s 1971 “Il Decameron.”

“There’s one particular moment where Giotto, who’s played by Pasolini, wakes up in the middle of the night with a vision of a painting he wants to make. It’s of all these people on a hill and the Virgin Mary and choirboys and underneath them, naked mannequin figures hanging and angels holding out a cross and people praying, and a boy holding up a miniature church. In the film it only lasted for a few seconds. I really wanted that image to stay in my head. It felt like a dream, so fleeting, but you really felt the energy of it. It encapsulated everything I was trying to find and say and think about.”

Freeing herself from the anxiety of creating something new with every new canvas, Spota began to paint, over and over, variants of “Giotto’s Dream” -- scenes densely packed with tiny repeated figures, each a single swipe and dash of paint, yet legible as rows of angels, Christ on the cross, Mary with the infant Jesus in her arms, naked bodies suspended by their feet, all laid down in muted primaries, black, white and brown, in pigment viscous as marshmallow cream.

“I really liked how the thick paint made the dream more dreamlike,” she says, “how the paint vibrated and created that feeling of the dream, because you can’t really focus on it when it’s thick and textured like that. You get the general idea of the image and then as soon as you look away, you can’t really construct the entire image in your head the way it is in the painting, but you get the feeling of the painting, the ethereal energy from it.”

Her format has stayed relatively consistent since that turning point, but the paintings have continually changed, incorporating personal narratives, flags and border designs derived from Italian church architecture. In recent work, she has cut strips of canvas patterned with coats of arms and wrapped them around another canvas. With a palette knife in each hand, she’s scooped up chunks of not-quite-dry imagery off one canvas and grafted it onto another.

Throughout, the colors, idioms and themes borrow heavily from the late Gothic and early Renaissance Italian art she studied during a formative semester abroad as an undergraduate. Traveling through Umbria and Tuscany, Spota soaked in the art of Duccio, Cimabue, Piero della Francesca and Giotto, and learned to paint using egg tempera and fresco techniques.

When she saw that scene in Pasolini’s film, “something snapped,” she recalls, her warm brown eyes widening. Her intrigue with film imagery and her deep impressions from Italy converged, resulting in a stunning and surprising body of work: small canvases with an epic scope and, for a contemporary artist, an unusually earnest take on religious subjects.

“I think it’s like the perfect storm,” Spota says. “I’ve been so focused on painting and the history of painting, but I am Italian and I am Catholic -- in this mystical sense of being Catholic. And all these elements combined have made the work non-ironic. They’re very sincere to me.”

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calendar@latimes.com


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