“The future is a little mysterious right now and like the world, I’m adjusting,” Jessica Westhafer told us when we last spoke with her for our Art in Uncertain Times series back in May 2020. Little did we know back then how long this adjusting period will last, and what will come from it, but we’re excited to see the results of it coming up on view at her international solo debut at Duve Gallery in Berlin on April 29th.

And things seem to be quite different for Westhafer one year later – while her MFA thesis exhibition at Indiana University was transformed into an online viewing room, the artist will have a proper physical opening of her big European debut. But at the same time, the slow and restricting mobility of the past year greatly influenced her practice and the development of her visual language. It was pretty obvious that we were instant fans of her rubbery vision of the world and the way she portrayed her teenage experiences, so we were excited to see how the new pieces are looking and curious to hear what they are about. “I’ve always felt my life has been stuck in the survival mode portion of a video game,” the Arkansas-born, NYC-based artist told Juxtapoz about the backstory of this particular series of paintings and charcoal drawings. “This body of work reinterprets my experiences into more universal emotions – the feeling of being under pressure, fighting for survival, struggling to cope with too much on your plate, etc. While at the same time celebrating the tenacity of the human spirit and poking a little fun at the tragedy along the way.”

And although life provided a new range of subjects to work with, it also took care of providing perfect circumstances for technical exploration which Westhafer seemed to accept in its entirety. “It’s so weird how solitary being a full-time artist is outside of the graduate school bubble,” she told us about the initial drawback she felt once she moved to NYC after graduation. “Feedback from school still lingers occasionally but ultimately it’s just me in the studio now. A few months in I think I said well, Fuck it! It’s just paint!” Certainly way more daring, expressive, and determined, Westhafer is still imbuing her visuals with a steady dose of dark humor while creating more ambiguous, universally intelligible visuals. Almost exclusively working with faceless figures and being more experimental with a variety of techniques and ways of applying and manipulating the medium, she is able to capture our clumsiness and incompetence through highly appealing and technically exciting images. 

“I think Philip Guston said something about slowly after enough time the voices leave your studio until you’re stuck with your own thoughts/decisions,” Westhafer told us about the shift in her approach. “I think there has been this return to the initial way I learned how to paint in my undergrad, it was a heavy perceptual painting program with an emphasis on the mark to build form, expressive, layered, and at times fast. I felt this rebellious struggle with my past in graduate school and fluctuated between a more immaculate surface versus an expressive one. It’s scary but mostly freeing after graduate school, there are no rules – your past sort of merges with your present and you just paint.” The richness of textures, the voluminosity of the characters and objects, and the depiction of dynamics, as well as great subtleties in the light setting that engulf the overly dramatic scenes, are some of the results of this new, ambitious approach. Additionally driven by the motivating new surroundings around her, Westhafer is continuing to gain perspective, demystify the rules, structures, and expectations of the world, through mischievous adventures of the avatar-like epitomes of human feelings. —Sasha Bogojev