A new light 

Jennifer Li shows the secret in the smile

The invented characters of Jennifer Li's oil paintings have secrets. They stare out from the canvas with Mona Lisa half-smiles or sometimes a slight grimace. Pieces like "The Steaming Pot," "The Pie Maker" or "Just a Pinch" from Li's Kitchen series transport you to the scullery quarters of some early 19th century peasant household, or perhaps they're the kitchens behind the scenes of a "Downton Abbey"-type estate. Either way, Li focuses on the simple life of the lower class.

"I love the idea of painting everyday things in a loving way," Li says. "I love the idea of exalting ordinary objects."

Li, who is represented by several galleries including Missoula's Dana Gallery, has a style that evokes the Dutch Golden Era, when famous painters such as Frans Hals, Johannes Vermeer and Rembrandt presented often homely, mundane objects in natural light. Li plays with light, too, which enhances certain details of her work—a cooking pot or a rolling pin, for instance. In some ways, Li seems less concerned with realistic details than with the glow and finish of her work. Her warm yellows and golden browns, sunset oranges and steel blues don't assault the eye in the ways some abstract paintings do. Instead, they emanate as if there's a light built inside them.

Li grew up in Marin County, Calif., near San Francisco, and after college she lived in New York for 20 years. She honed her skills at the Arts Students League and then worked at her own studio. Her colors evolved over the years.

"When I was painting in New York, the idea was that you would paint your studio with a dark value of gray so that there would be a neutral feeling to everything," she says. "And then you would put your subject in there and supposedly there would be no reflected light that would interfere with the colors of things. But when I looked back at paintings that I did in that era of my work, I'm just really struck by how even gray can have a reflection. So I felt everything was dull-looking compared to when I moved to Montana."

click to enlarge “Trixie’s Place” by Jennifer Li
  • “Trixie’s Place” by Jennifer Li

She moved to Montana"in the boonies," she says—with her husband, painter Nick Oberling. She started to take the vibrant colors of the natural world and combined those with the radiant finish of Dutch-style painting.

"I was lucky to spend enough time in New York going to the Metropolitan Museum and getting to see those [Dutch] painters' works. I did some traveling and I've been to Rubens' studio in Antwerp and looked at them up close. They're just so unbelievably beautiful and jewel-like and that's what I really strive for, the way the brushstrokes just melt away and the surface is beautifully defined."

Li isn't stuck on the idea of everyday objects. Her Circus series uses luminescent colors for scenes of old-time big top characters. The tableau vivant-inspired scenes don't indulge in action—no one is jumping through hoops. Instead, it's more like a parade of characters passing through the window of the canvas, including a child on a horse with a tiger in tow, a dainty ballerina leading a lion and a woman sitting on top of a crocodile.

"I love the whole interaction between humans and animals," Li says. "Especially potentially dangerous animals."

Li's working on a similar idea for the annual Western Masters Art Show and Sale in Great Falls in March. Her new series is based on the Buffalo Bill Wild West Show and will include an assortment of characters in boots and fringe, Native costumes and other western couture of the time. As usual, there will be gleaming colors and mysterious expressions, making you wonder just what all these characters are thinking. But Li, who is often as elusive as her paintings, isn't going to give up her secrets so easily.

"I tend to get questions about what my intentions are with my paintings," Li says. "I really would like them to speak for themselves. Part of your aesthetic reaction is to fill in those blanks."

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