Visual Language: Jennifer Meanley’s Kaleidoscopic Realities

The Greensboro painter creates colorful, layered paintings that riff on techniques she uses in her writing, as well.
by Liza Roberts | portrait by Lissa Gotwals

A 2021 installation at Spiva Gallery in Joplin, Missouri.

Intimate, lush and allegorical, Jennifer Meanley’s paintings are large-scale depictions of human experience. Figures, often out of scale with their environments, gaze at odd angles within kaleidoscopic settings, more consumed with their interior lives than with the scenes they inhabit.

Animals, alive and dead, sometimes share the space. Something’s clearly about to happen, or might be happening, or perhaps already has happened. Are her subjects aware?

“There is often a sense of lack of synchronicity between how we experience our bodies and how we experience our mind, our emotional states,” Meanley says.

Her paintings “often register that paradox, whether that’s with the animals, or the symbolism with the space itself… or whether the figure seems to be looking and registering and connecting” to reality. 

A painting underway on her working wall features a caped, gamine figure gazing upon a flayed animal, possibly a deer, within a riotously overgrown landscape. “I was thinking of this sort of crazy Bacchanal,” says Meanley, a New Hampshire native who teaches drawing, painting and printmaking at the University of North Carolina Greensboro.

“Or of a surplus, imagination as a kind of surplus.” Anything is possible in the abundant realm of the imagined, she points out. The real world is another matter. 

Color plays a major role in her work. “I’ve always had a penchant for really saturated colors,” she says, especially as a way to indicate atmosphere, like light, air, wind and the grounding element of earth. Like poetry, her images reveal themselves in stages and elements: rhythm, tone, vocabulary, story. 

As if smoldering and smoke were oneness evoked by thought and expression (2019)

So it’s no surprise to learn that Meanley writes regularly in forms she compares to short fiction, a process she describes as “a field that I experience, stepping in and noticing punctuation, noticing the spaces between things, or the pauses, the way breath might be taken.

That’s all really, really fascinating to me.” When she’s teaching, she tries to create a corollary to visual language in much the same way. “What does it mean to literally punctuate a drawing, in a way that you would take a sentence that essentially had no meaning, and make it comprehensible?” she asks her students. “In words, you do it through timing, space, rhythm and breath — what are the ways we can do this in art?” 

As she grows older, her writing sessions have taken on more importance, Meanley says. Writing “is a way for me to deepen my personal exploration of my own psychic space, which is the origins of the paintings as well.”

Though she doesn’t intend to publish these writings, Meanley is open to the possibility of including some of her words in new paintings. “I think the world that I’m exploring has to do with the idea of psychological interiority, and how that can find representation” through words and images. 

This exploration also connects to physical movement, another practice Meanley credits with fueling her creative process. Long walks with her dog in the woods spark marathon writing sessions, which help inspire drawings and paintings. 

The Earth of an Enlightened Being (2020)

They have also attuned Meanley to the natural environment of the South, so different from what surrounded her in New Hampshire, where she earned her BFA at the University of New Hampshire, or even at Indiana University, where she received her MFA. She moved to Greensboro in 2008 for the job at UNCG, and in and around the Triad, she finds nature so lush, so green, so impressive.

“I started realizing that there’s this battle within the landscape,” she says. “Just to even maintain my yard, I feel like I’m battling the natural growth here. It did amplify that sense of tension, of creating landscape as a narrative event… as an important space to contemplate hierarchies of power.” 

Summer, with its time away from the demands of academia, provides Meanley with more time for outdoor exploration and for contemplations of all kinds. She’s also looking forward to having time to tackle larger works, with the hope of a solo exhibition later this year or in 2024. “Doing a solo show is an endeavor,” she says. “Right now I’m gearing up.”

This article originally appeared in the June 2023 issue of WALTER magazine.