“Things that are in the news right now”: Painter Jen Omaitz explores natural disaster through assemblage

“I always like to say I am a painter,” says Jen Omaitz, standing in her kitchen. She lives in Kent with her husband Steve Collier, and two large dogs—an Akita and an Alaskan Malamute—in a house surrounded by oaks and pines. Inside, there’s plenty of evidence of that medium: in addition to works by several other Northeast Ohio artists, the house is decorated with her own abstract paintings. Her identification as a painter extends to an email address that brands her as such.

But beginning in graduate school at Kent State University in 2008, Omaitz has made a continually evolving series of distinctive, gloriously chaotic, large-scale sculptural installations. Her immediately recognizable style has made them a mainstay of her output. They extend from walls, from floors to ceilings, filling rooms with seemingly random bits of wood, metal, and plastic. Evocative of cyclones and earthquakes, they express movement above all, but also turmoil and wreckage. Caught up in them are bits of life and landscape—traffic cones and orange barrels, strips of wood and wire, models of houses constructed of foam core—and more intimate details, like a single feather from a cardinal who died after crashing into a window during a studio visit before an installation at the Riffe Gallery in Columbus: a relic, a memory of a life. Sometimes the tumbling model houses are decorated with miniature works of art by friends.

After completing her MFA in painting at Kent in 2009 (and previously a BFA in painting from the Cleveland Institute of Art in 2002), Omaitz did paint. In fact she painted a lot, first in oil, then in acrylic. But she also made a steady stream of three-dimensional installations: at Waterloo Arts (with Amy Casey, 2009), at Edinboro University (in Dislocation, 2010), in Denver (as part of the Biennial of the Americas in 2010), at The Sculpture Center (in the W2S series, 2011), at Cleveland Institute of Art’s Reinberger Gallery (in Tale in Two Cities, curated by Bruce Checefsky, 2012), at MOCA (as part of Everything All at Once, curated by Liz Maugans, 2013), at Hotcards Red Space (Radical Tectonic, 2014), at Siena Heights University in Adrian, Michigan, (with Andy Curlowe, 2016), and at the Riffe Gallery in Columbus (Come Along With Me, 2017). There were others, but you get the idea.

The year 2018 has been a big year on this front, beginning with an installation that dominated the BAYarts gallery as part of her solo show there in March. Titled Constructions, the show was a first for her in that it included both a large-scale installation and a collection of her new paintings: she’d never before shown the two veins of her work together. The site-specific piece at BAYarts incorporated two architecturally decorative holes in the gallery’s partial, suspended ceiling, seeming to tumble out from them as if construction materials and whole buildings could spill through the clouds and fall from the sky.

Constructions at BAYarts

The installation pace only accelerates in the coming months. Next up is a massive project in the W Gallery at American Greetings in Westlake, part of a two-person show with Corrie Slawson. At press time she was still considering whether to make an installation as part of Rooms to Let: CLE (July 28 and 29 in Slavic Village). The installation event using foreclosed and otherwise doomed houses as substrate would seem to be an ideal platform for this work. And she’ll make an installation for another two-person show with Arabella Proffer at Cleveland West Art League (CWAL) in the fall.

That could mean four major installations this year, including the one at American Greetings, which she says would be her largest to date. Her contribution to that show, which she and Slawson are calling Mutual Formation: Artifice & Persuasion (May 24–July 13), will be nearly 100 feet long, wrapping around a corner and incorporating one of the gallery’s storage houses into its flow.

“The models of houses will look like they are caught up in the movement. It will have a duration. The length of it will mean it will have to have a narrative.”

She expects that the installation will take seven days, working nine to five with a crew of up to three people helping.

Omaitz says the installations are about climate change and tectonic shifts—superstorms and earthquakes, resulting from human action and inaction.

Omaitz in Her Studio

“I initially started thinking of them as [analogous to] social waste and pollution. Now they are inspired by natural and geological disasters and storms—things that are in the news right now.”

With all that going on, it’s a little bit of a surprise that Omaitz identifies as a painter. But it is not hard to see the connections, even if the three-dimensionality and her stated intent with the installation pieces are in contrast to the abstract, two-dimensionality of her painting. One way she connects the two is philosophically, guided by the book Constructions, by philosopher John Rajchman. In the book he discusses concepts that relate to both art and architecture, in a quest to synthesize something new. Says one passage Omaitz has underlined: “They ask what can be done with form once it is released from ‘classical’ determination within a field or ground, when it is no longer given to an external or overseeing eye accustomed to nice, up-down, vertical-horizontal structures or some ‘collage’ among them. That is what I will call the problem of ‘operative form.’”

“I read that book a lot,” Omaitz says.

But without all that heady, theoretical apparatus, there are plenty of connections to be found between her paintings and these installations. It’s about drawing lines, the way multiple lines work together, and the way they can be both representative and abstract. There’s a series of paintings she created years ago, based on the swirling traces of lights shot with a moving camera in the city at night: not streaks of red and white that follow the predictable path as cars move along a highway, but bouncey, dancing trails made when the camera itself is in motion, and lights in its path are, too. They give the dizzy feeling of laser lights at an EDM rave. Not coincidentally, Omaitz did a stint working that scene with a lighting production crew. She took photographs, and painted from them.  She still has a big pile of this source material in a drawer in her studio. And you can see that kind of sweeping movement in the sculptural installations, too.

Her painting practice has moved on from that, and any allusions to be found there now are more conceptual than literal: it’s pure abstraction, with lines and planes working to frame and divide space like walls and buildings do, but there are no walls or buildings to be found.

The connection between Jen-the-installation artist and Jen-the-painter may be most direct on a technical front. Her assemblage pieces begin not with mountains of raw material hoarded in her studio, but with drawings. She begins planning the installations with a pencil on paper, drawing the room a given work will inhabit, and then finding lines through it, dividing up the space on the otherwise blank page. These are foundational drawing skills, the artist practicing what she teaches at the University of Akron. Then she builds up from the drawings using fabric, thread, and splinters of wood the size of toothpicks. The table in her studio shows such beginnings of half a dozen of her installations. When they are realized in full scale, they interrupt the space and redefine it, just like the drawings do on paper, and just like her ongoing practice of painting. And their individual elements–for example the long curves that establish movement through each whole installation, sometimes in slender strips of wood, sometimes in plastic or metal—look just like they were drawn there with a giant pencil or brush.

“I’m like a trans-media artist,” she says. “I do all this large-scale assemblage by engaging sculptural language, but because of my formative experience they still come out of my place as a painter.”