Jay DeFeo / Alter Ego


Jay DeFeo / Alter Ego

By Anton Stuebner October 1, 2015

Shadows suffuse Jay DeFeo’s work. In her gelatin silver prints, familiar objects suddenly become insidious, the high-contrast black-and-white exposures revealing breaks and fissures in what we might otherwise regard as impervious surfaces. The amorphous graphite and charcoal fields in her works on paper, conversely, suggest vortices of depth and motion, and are both unsettling and exhilarating in their free-form abstraction. Her photo and ink collages are densely layered, bordering on the monstrous, their shapes reminiscent of wings and body parts. And her massive grayscale canvases depict violently jutting shapes suspended against unplumbed backdrops of black paint, evoking flight and, inevitably, descent.

Throughout her career, DeFeo (1929–1989) experimented with form, perspective, and light in order to explore the undersides of things, the unseen. Although she took primary inspiration from everyday objects—a shoe, a protractor, a potted plant—these things functioned as points of departure for much stranger and darker imaginings. The fifty-five works included in Jay DeFeo/Alter Ego, now on view at Hosfelt Gallery, offer compelling insights into DeFeo’s multidisciplinary practice, which encompassed painting, photography, drawing, collage, and assemblage. But if the breadth of works on display suggests the expansiveness of her art, it is also indicative of DeFeo’s tireless intellect and her myriad attempts to represent the instability of the material world around her.

 Jay DeFeo, Untitled, 1973; gelatin silver print, 7 3/4 x 9 9/16 in., Estate no. P0778A. May not be reproduced in any form without permission of The Jay DeFeo Trust, © 2015 The Jay DeFeo Trust/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

This instability is immediately apparent from the exhibition’s title, and in positioning these works against the concept of an “alter ego,” curator Todd Hosfelt draws on extended metaphors of duality. In his curatorial statement, Hosfelt notes that DeFeo often worked on pieces contemporaneously and complementarily, so that “often, finished pieces would be formally similar; at other times they’d develop into works that Jay called ‘somewhat opposite.’” The works on view are thus either displayed in discrete pairs or organized into loose series based on date of creation or consistent motifs.

More than a third of the works included are gelatin silver prints. The still lives may seem obtusely simple at first—a piece of driftwood in the sand, a slack hand lying atop a bedsheet, a close-up of a leafy potted plant specked with dew. In DeFeo’s renderings, however, the intense play of light and shadow cuts the pictorial field with a pallor and darkness so intense that innocuous things become eerily deathly. Otherwise-imperceptible details emerge: the decay of the driftwood, liver spots creeping up the hand, insect damage to the seemingly lush potted plant. In photographing each still life from two perspectives, DeFeo creates a startling dimensionality that makes them, in pairs, even more unsettling. The same hand in an untitled 1973 work that seems lifeless and slack in profile becomes threatening when seen head-on in its companion print, the shadow under the bent fingers suggesting an encroaching movement toward the camera lens.1

DeFeo’s collage work presents equally unusual forms that are both highly abstract and suggestively figurative. In Wings No. 1 (Angel Series) (1976), fragmented pieces of slate, tan, and black paper are taped into a roughly triangular assemblage against a backdrop of torn notebook paper, its surface stained black with ink, perforations of spiral binding bordering its bottom edge. Hand-drawn outlines and scribbles cover the collage, giving it the haphazard appearance of a quick cut-and-paste. But strange shapes appear among the jagged lines: a long and bent cylindrical form near the center that resembles a finger, or a pair of thickly graded lines bent into a V near the base that could almost be mistaken for legs. These figurative forms find echoes in an untitled 1976 collage, which reimagines the jagged, winglike shape but in a marbled gelatin silver print of amorphous black and white fields, where cavernous and fibrous tunnels resemble ventricles. The visual references to wings and body parts evoke a disorienting hybridity, as if collage and assemblage are being used to evoke a dreamlike monstrosity.

Left: Jay DeFeo, Hawk Moon No. 1, 1983–85, oil on canvas, 84 x 60 in., Estate no. E1382. Right: Jay DeFeo, Hawk Moon No. 2, 1983–85, oil on canvas, 96 x 60 in., Estate no. E1124. Images may not be reproduced in any form without permission of The Jay DeFeo Trust, © 2015 The Jay DeFeo Trust/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

These winglike shapes reemerge in the staggering diptych Hawk Moon No. 1 and Hawk Moon No. 2 (both 1983–85). Here, DeFeo reimagines the earlier collages in grayscale oil paint. But whereas the small collages evoke tension by suggesting suspended motion, the canvases produce a more awesome feeling of dread through a visual narrative of rise and fall. In Hawk Moon No. 1, white triangular shapes outlined in black seem to furiously beat again a steely gray background, their smeared edges evoking blurred motion. In Hawk Moon No. 2, the gray backdrop becomes a black void, and the winglike shapes harden into a darker-hued and static industrial form like a screw or a metal coil. Its tip pointed down, this is a form in freefall, visually weighted down.

These tensions—between lightness and heaviness, motion and stasis, abstract and figurative—are central to Jay DeFeo/Alter Ego. In reconceptualizing the forms of her everyday life, DeFeo’s work suggests the importance of embracing the imaginary and the real as necessary complements. If contrasting forces are ultimately always in play, Hosfelt—and, indeed, DeFeo—suggests that these dualities can produce great works of imagination and beauty.


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Jay DeFeo / Alter Ego is on view at Hosfelt Gallery, in

San Francisco

, through October 10, 2015.


  1. Greil Marcus discusses DeFeo’s process of titling some works while leaving others untitled in his excellent catalogue essay for the Whitney Museum of American Art’s recent exhibition: Jay DeFeo: A Retrospective, ed. Dana Miller (New York: Whitney Museum of American Art, 2012).

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