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The Dinner Club: Auteur Painting of Jennifer White Kuri

By Peter Frank, Curator, Art Writer & Critic

Kuri has brought to fruition a sequence of ten large paintings that portray a circle of acquaintances-become-friends, and do so by reflecting in great detail the facets of these women’s lives – reflecting their points of view, from those close (including one another), and from Kuri’s own knowledge and experience with them. These portrayals are not simply of people, but of lives.

The individuals Kuri depicts have met for dinner for years on a semi-regular basis in San Francisco. Their gatherings are more formal than coffee klatches, but certainly less so than the meetings of a membership club. The women come from varied backgrounds, although they are not far apart in social or economic standing, their places of origin are disparate, even exotic to one another. These are social women, but not necessarily society women; they assemble because they understand one another’s intellectual and spiritual restlessness.

Certainly, we feel that restlessness coursing through Kuri’s portrayals of her dinner mates. The painter’s colorful, spontaneous style, with its angularity and expansiveness, embodies the women’s mental energy and abiding curiosity. In fact, Kuri conveys this living, breathing, bristling mentality in all cases less by depicting the way her subject looks than by displaying the artifacts of each subject’s mind and soul. In their literal contents these paintings are themselves as much still life as portrait; but the still life content embodies biographical and spiritual detail that the women’s visages and body language simply can’t convey. These are not staged portraits, but compiled portraits; the subjects are not acting themselves, but describing themselves.

The history of portraiture is of course dotted with depictions that describe their subjects as much through associative objects as through images of the sitters themselves. In this respect alone, Kuri maintains a tradition; indeed, she quite willfully extends its specific practice in the context of the Bay Area Figurative School. A product of the San Francisco region, Kuri trained at the University of California Berkeley under Elmer Bischoff and Joan Brown, both of whom contributed crucially to the practice of stylized figuration associated with the Bay Area.

Kuri’s willing embrace of the feminine – of women-associated objects, and ultimately of women themselves – echoes Brown’s. But Kuri’s approach is more circumspect subjectively, if no less visually brash: while it centers on her own life and experiences, Kuri’s art asserts not her presence, but her experience. We see the world through her eyes, as if perusing her diary. Kuri’s viewpoint is cinematic to a great degree, but she does not star in her own painted “movies” so much as script and direct them (the self-portrait that completes the Dinner Club cycle a notable exception). Call it auteur painting.

Whether it is the non-American origin of several Dinner Club members, the age of them all, or simply Kuri’s own sense of self-containment and guarded intimacy, the Dinner Club paintings, for all their myriad clues and trappings, evince none of the sloppy revelation in which the Internet – and much broadcast entertainment – is currently awash. These paintings reveal their subjects, to be sure, but reveal only so much and no more. It does not make them seem nobler, more powerful, more attractive, or smarter than they really are; by placing the figures themselves in their own middle distance, and ringing them with “loaded” objects, Kuri is able to describe her subjects satisfactorily to her audience even while using the broadest of strokes to realize that description. This is the opposite of voyeurism; and, while thoroughly modern in their conception and realization, the Dinner Club paintings are thoroughly traditional in the dignity they permit, even find in, the subject. (Condensed version. For full article, contact Jennifer.

Jennifer White Kuri on The Dinner Club Cycle

The women’s dinner club was founded in 1978 by my friend, Noreen Ferrari. It is more commonly known among insiders as “Hot Jello.” The club has gathered regularly over food and wine for the past thirty years in San Francisco, primarily to exchange ideas and share our passions. We all lead extremely creative, active, and very intense lives, and, in the three decades that the dinner club has been meeting, we have of course had many laughs as well as weathered many of life’s storms: divorces, raising teenagers, the death of parents, etc. I found out literally how true this has been when areas of the paintings I had mapped out became dated before I finished painting them. The paintings have truly become snapshots of those particular days and times.

The idea for the cycle of paintings came about after being intrigued so often by the strong bond we share and how dependable women are for one another. Each painting in the series has resulted from an extensive interview conducted with each subject. I portray each friend, ten in all, not just as a figure, but rather as a human with a complex history providing the essence of the person without giving away everything. I realize that the paintings are also flavored by my emotional history with each of the women. In many cases I respected their privacy and hid some secrets behind other revelations.

An interesting challenge confronted me as I delved further into making these paintings. I had become accustomed in my artwork to choosing subject matter strictly as a vehicle for making paintings. I’d grown used to transcending the subject in deference to the materials and to the very act of painting. In these cases, however, a personal responsibility to each sitter and to our shared history came to the fore, and I could not just use my friends as still lifes – mere objects to paint.

I have left each woman faceless. I understand this further prompts the viewer to make assumptions about the subject. Perhaps this is a bit wicked of me, as I have deliberately provoked thoughts finally left unanswered. The pop iconography of certain luxury items is not under attack, but is acknowledged. Authentic in their sophisticated taste, these women more importantly honor life’s real value – well beyond material possessions. Also, I make no excuses about being unabashedly domestic. I want the viewer to step into the work where they feel comfortable, inspired, and can rest a bit. Most of the women are mothers but this series captures each woman in a moment by themselves.

Although I currently reside in Los Angeles, these Bay Area women have remained a rich part of my life, and I still attend the dinners. I remain devoted to them and to the San Francisco region, as I earned my MA in 1975 at the University of California, Berkeley, where I flourished under the tutelage of some very well known, and very giving, Bay Area Figurative painters. I have continued ever since on the course they helped set me on. As the art world has navigated so many directions since, I continue to travel the globe, refreshed by my painting roots and the region in which they are rooted. I feel as if I hail from a neighborhood with a flavor and color, distinction and honesty all its own. This spiritual region is eclectic and confident, transcending trends. After all these years it still feels as if I’m stumbling onto a city block with a unique character to it, and that I’ve made a discovery that’s not available anywhere else and that I want to be part of for the rest of my life.

The completion of this series has evolved into a new cycle: women’s portraits from around the globe, all who are working to change their social, political, and physical environments for the better, offering hope to scores of other women. The purpose in doing this as an art exhibit is to translate their fearlessness across all borders through the medium of painting. During my travels I have begun the first three interviews of women from Saudi Arabia, Lebanon, and Panama, and formally started the Global Women Project. What I am finding is the spiritual and intellectual wealth of women from multiple sectors – education, healthcare, government, media, and the arts – who are working hard to make a difference is truly enlightening.

 

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