NORTH ADAMS -- Calgary artists Jennifer Saleik and David John Foy pile it all out there for everyone to see, leaving multi-layered canvases that capture their two minds working as a singularity.
Saleik and Foy are part of "Oh, Canada," showing at Mass MoCA.
"The big piece in Mass MoCA, when we finally got it complete, we just stared at it forever," Saleik said. "I was so pleased at how awkward it looked. It was sort of this awkward teenager, not really sure of itself, and then Dave says, ‘Ah, it's like a self-portrait.' Oh, yeah, that's totally how I see it."
The couple met eight years ago while finishing art school, and though they describe their styles as very different at the time, it was their compulsion to enter into the other's work that made it impossible for them to go their separate ways. Along the way, the styles have melded as they have created their own language with which to work.
"We definitely have learned from each other for sure; there's no way we couldn't. And then I think together we make one competent artist," Foy said.
As time went on, they began to put more into their work together -- literally on the canvas, its all their thoughts and efforts making the painting cluttered and piled and saying many things at once. Their paintings contain such a complex system of strokes that it can takes months to finish one -- "And the Voyager Returned" at Mass MoCA took more than a year to complete.
"Everything starts as a concept, but then, because we're painters in Alberta, we can't really deny the fact that we have a very formal background, have formal training," Saleik said. "I think there's always that fine line. I think Dave and I need to root ourselves in materials because that's how we communicate effectively."
Foy added, "We never have a completed concept at the very beginning. We have a loose idea of what we want to do and just have the paintings evolve through layers, so dissolve the narrative and all that stuff slowly gets added, and we don't really, necessarily know where it's going to go in the end. We have a basic idea."
This makes any given painting a journey with a mystery at the end, and the process wraps in anything and everything that might happen during the course of a day, and builds on these. The couple attempts to split duties so evenly that co-authorship with the appearance of singularity in conception and realization is at the center of their practice -- they want it to look like something that was made by one person.
They try to work on pieces at the same time as often as possible, which makes larger works more amenable to their process, but each has veto power on the other's concepts. One of them might think they have a great idea, but part of the process is convincing the other that it is so.
"More often than not, we just compliment each other's ideas and build on them and change them slightly," Foy said.
Both Saleik and Foy agree that one of the strengths of this type of partnership is that it is possible for one unit of the whole -- that is, one of them -- to function for both of them and keep the idea moving in the absence of another.
"You can leave a little while to go get a drink or something, and then you come back and the painting's actually changed somewhat significantly, so you get surprises," said Foy. "And then other times you can get stuck on something and then the other person can just come in with fresh eyes and finish it."
Saleik describes it as a free fall. If the process is one of discovery, and where the work ends is an unknown at the beginning of the process, then what each individual brings to it is a whole other level of unpredictable. They may work as one, but they each represent different sides of the painterly super-organism's psyche, and any given work is the result of that confluence.
Though the process allows for freedom, it also has some limitations at the end. It isn't so easy for either in the couple to just look at something, decide it didn't quite work out like they'd hoped and manipulate some brush strokes to correct the problem. The brush strokes are buried under layers of resin that bind every artistic decision or flourish to a form of eternity.
"We do a layer of paint and then we pour a layer of resin when we're happy with that layer," Foy said, "and then, in order to adhere the next layer of resin after, and the paint, we have to sand it to give it some tooth, and that frosts out everything from behind. So the further and further you get out, the less you can see of what you've done before. You're always working a little blind."
"Right until the end, you don't know what the finished product is going to be, but those surprises can be really great," Saleik said. "That's the free fall aspect of it. But sometimes you find yourself desperately trying to reign something in right at the end. It's a very interesting mind puzzle."
Because of the process they employ, the works represent not only the couple's prowess at painting, but their ability to create solutions. Any given piece is an example of the two of them positing their own problem and then working to bring it to a conclusion -- what's left is the result of that process, with the steps laid on top of each other for visitors in a gallery to ponder. Sometimes these solutions only come at the last moment. Sometimes they elongate the process far past the original perceived schedule, but they always eventually happen and that is at the center of the couple's artistic concerns
Saleik and Foy can be found online at www.theworldofdaveandjenn.com.