Jenna Gribbon on fictional relationships, fluorescent pink nipples and her new series of double-portraits

Photography by Lizzy Myers

Jenna Gribbon paints her most salacious works on miniature canvases. Her first-person perspective painting of oral sex, Sunday Morning, is roughly the length of a woman's hand and fits into a large coat pocket.

These shrunken canvases aren't about making desire small. Instead, Gribbon wants to force the viewer into a confrontation with their looking.

Talking on the phone, she explained, "I like that when [these pieces] are installed in a space, the viewer has to get extremely close to them to even really see the painting. When they do that, they put their body in viewing proximity that makes it obvious to everyone else in the room that they're looking at this painting."

Gribbon's lush, impressionistic brush strokes can at times veil this confrontational impulse at the heart of her work. "I like people to have to own what they're doing," she told Creative Boom. "I'm certainly not opposed to the viewer having a fantasy experience; I just like it to be a super self-conscious one."

Our collective ability to look at representations of nude bodies in public spaces without embarrassment or at least self-awareness fascinates Gribbon. She explained, "You wouldn't want to sit next to someone in your family during a sex scene in a film, but we can all stand around and look at a very erotic painting from a couple of hundred years ago in a museum. I think it's ridiculous."

Accommodating desire in public spaces involves mental ellipses – things we all agree to let slide. Gribbon pushes back against that kind of complacency. She is known for painting nude female bodies with delightful, highlighter pink nipples. "That's what the fluorescent nipples are about," she continued. "[They] make it impossible not to look at them, which is the opposite of how you've been trained, which is to let the eye fly past. It catches you."

© Jenna Gribbon

© Jenna Gribbon

Photography by Lizzy Myers

Photography by Lizzy Myers

Gribbon has a new, untitled show on view this month with Howard's in Athens, Georgia that engages with the erotics of looking from a fresh angle. The show features seven double-portraits – double because each painting depicts a real person in the guise of a fictional one. The artist grew up not knowing any out lesbians, and public representations of queer people weren't available to fill in the gaps.

Without these guidelines for desire, Gribbon found herself intensely invested in certain cultural characters and fictional relationships. Each of the portraits in this show depicts someone significant from the artist's present life painted as a figure she obsessed over in the past. Gribbon called them "another way to go about superimposing the present onto the past and seeing what that looks like".

She cast friends as characters in a process she described as "partially vibe and partially physical". Tori Amos, Dawn from The Babysitter's Club, Anne and Diana from Anne of Green Gables and Sarah Crewe from A Little Princess all make appearances. Anne and Diana are the only pair represented in the group, and their close relationship was particularly crucial to Gribbon growing up: "I loved those books and also the films and admired the relationship of Anne and Diana. I, in some way, wanted that for myself."

The queer potential of Anne's intensely romantic conception of female friendship has gained cultural momentum over time. In 2008, celebrating the 100th anniversary of L.M. Montgomery's classic novel, two lesbian fans of the series put on an 'Anne Made Me Gay' cabaret in Toronto. Of her interest in the friends, Gribbon agreed, "You can read that if you'd like as being very gay. I think it wouldn't be wrong to say so. To say—wow, they're so close. Why can't I have that? Be close to someone like that."

© Jenna Gribbon

© Jenna Gribbon

Photography by Lizzy Myers

Photography by Lizzy Myers

Gribbon painted her girlfriend, indie musician Mackenzie Scott, twice for the collection – once as J Mascis of the band Dinosaur Jr. and once as Pollyanna of the 1960 Disney classic, Pollyanna. "I watched that film so many times as a child that, in my mind, it feels like a real place," she told us.

Gribbon's family owned the movie: not even an official, store-bought tape, but a bootleg VHS copy recorded secondhand by a friend. "I was just completely fixated on it," she said. "I think, probably for two years in a row of my life, I watched it almost every day." Pollyanna has become a focal point of emotional significance for the artist. The character points backward to a time in Gribbon's life when desire manifested obscurely and also forward to the present moment where her girlfriend, she thinks, looks suspiciously like Pollyanna.

"There is a memory connection to me between that character and the significance of her in my life at this point." That connection makes Gribbon laugh. "It's comical to me because [Pollyanna] is ridiculous and just so over the top. When I showed [the Pollyanna painting to Mackenzie], I started laughing hysterically. I thought it was one of the funniest things I had ever done."

© Jenna Gribbon

© Jenna Gribbon

Photography by Lizzy Myers

Photography by Lizzy Myers

Gribbon sometimes worries that the humour in her work gets lost in translation. "I think my paintings are hilarious," she said. "But I don't even know if anyone else gets the joke." A spirit of playfulness does ring through the work, and especially Gribbon's conception of it. "I thought about calling the show GAY! GAY! GAY! It might have even been four GAY!'s," she said with a laugh. "But then ultimately, I just decided to leave it a little bit more open-ended."

Portraiture as a genre leans into specificity, but Gribbon's double-depictions insist on leaving room for interpretation. "Part of the joke," she explained, "is that Mackenzie reads gayness into anything that I tell her about my past. It's a thing that we like to laugh about." If nothing is gay, then anything could be. Desire and intimacy, friendship and love, identity and identification collide in Gribbon's double-portraits. She turns these possibilities over to the viewer. In her notes for the show, she writes that the paintings are "intentionally not explicitly homoerotic; their gayness rests in the gaze of the beholder." And Gribbon does invite you to look.

Photography by Lizzy Myers

Photography by Lizzy Myers

Gribbon's show at Howard's in Athens, Georgia, is on view until 7 March. She also has a painting in the group show 'If On a Winter's Night a Traveller', which launches on 27 February at Mamoth in London. You can follow her work on Instagram.