A recognizable, impossible world

Janelle Anderson’s collage-style acrylic paintings bring dreams to life

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There was an explosion, an accident of some sort, and chaos abounded; people were screaming, running from the smoke — but not Janelle Anderson.
Anderson walked against the tide of people, toward a house on a hill. It’s abandoned, but Anderson found something: a flip phone with a smiley face where the clock should be.

“And as soon as I see that, I have this sense of calm go over me,” Anderson says over a recent phone call from her home in Denver. “It’s this feeling, like everything is going to be OK. And then I just calmly walk down the stairs of this house and walk out of the house. Everybody is still running and screaming past me and I’m just walking calmly through this mess, all this chaos.”

The serenity stayed with Anderson when she awoke. Maybe the chemo she was undergoing to treat Hodgkin lymphoma caused the vivid dreams. Regardless, Anderson, then just 14 years old, knew she was going to be OK. 

“In Case of Fire”

A dozen years later, in 2017, a cancer-free Anderson painted “In Case of Fire,” an homage to that dream more surreal than the dream itself: a man and a woman cling to each other as they run, a pack of dogs following close behind. Superimposed over their figures is the house on the hill, a Victorian-era style with a turret, cold and imposing. A black plume of smoke billows in the distance.

“In Case of Fire” is currently on display at the Firehouse Art Center, where Anderson is the summer artist in residency through August. Her collage-style acrylic paintings — filled with metaphors and symbolism relating to memory, dreams, life, death and consciousness — are the foundation upon which she’ll build All Together Now, a community engagement project in which Anderson will use photographs provided by locals to create a large-scale installation. 

“Ultimately, I want people to see a piece of themselves in the installation,” she says. “It’s our shared experiences coming together in this surreal scene that really shows how similar we all are. Hopefully that sparks a sense of connection and the sense that we are not as divided as we think we are. We really are all the same. We really are all connected.”

While not religious in the traditional sense, Anderson does tap into a sense of spirituality to create her work.

“Maybe I’m just recognizing the signs better now that I’m older and I’m a mom,” she says. “But I have more of a recognition now that everything is connected, that we are the earth, that God is all around us.”

Anderson’s paintings subvert reality in the tradition of veristic surrealists like René Magritte, Salvador Dalí and Paul Delvaux, depicting dreamlike worlds in rich detail. Like the great surrealists, Anderson’s renderings are disarmingly lifelike, her attention to light and shadow as focused as any traditional landscape or portrait artist, drawing the viewer into a world that is both recognizable and impossible. 

“She’s really brave in her use of negative space,” says Firehouse Curator Brandy Coons. “When you populate a canvas, the image field of a work of art you’re creating exists within that border. But when she uses all of that open, negative space, she’s adding a question mark to where that border begins and ends. We have this idea that the picture plane, that square or rectangle, that clean line between the edge of the painting and the edge of the rest of the world is very clearly delineated. But when she brings that white space into her work, you get this sense of a nebulous kind of flexible edge.”

“Portal I”

It’s the same edge we find blurred in our dreams: familiar images — humans, animals, houses, landscapes — populate dangerous, unreasonable or impossible situations. But Anderson’s paintings suggest, as do our dreams, that there is something else happening outside of our vision, that maybe what we’re witnessing isn’t real. 

And like dreams, Anderson’s work is open to interpretation. In a piece called “Tongues and Teeth,” the muzzles of half a dozen dogs spring from the head of a man with closed eyes and a calm expression. Mental health comes to mind for me, while Coons finds herself reflecting on toxic masculinity. 

“I’m a very soft-spoken, shy, sweet person. People have always told me that,” Anderson says. “And when I was younger — when I was a teenager especially — I didn’t want to be seen that way. I thought of myself as a pretty strong person. I felt frustrated that people didn’t see me that way. I felt like I had to prove myself in a way. ‘Tongues and Teeth’ is about that feeling, feeling different than the world sees you.”

“I’ve avoided really talking about the specific content of much of Janelle’s work because I truly feel it’s a little bit beside the point,” Coons says. “[Her paintings are] like little tarot card readings. Like there’s a kind of general-to-specific range that you almost don’t want to know. When you look at them as the viewer, you get to kind of write your own story.”  

All Together Now is Anderson’s attempt to write a story with the community. She’s still soliciting photographs — specifically of people, landscapes, animals, interiors, current events and weather disasters. 

“It’s less about the quality of the photo than it is about their life,” Anderson says. “Just a little section of their life, their humanity, their experience.  

ON THE Bill: Janelle Anderson will be available for questions about her process at Firehouse Art Center on Saturdays, noon-5 p.m. through August. Email photos for her collaborative project to alltogether@firehouseart.org. Please do not send images which are not your own.

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