A Painting that’s Sad, Ordinary, Funny, and Complex All at the Same Time

Images courtesy of the artist

Cruel & Thin - Jessica Dzielinski

Prairie Lights Bookstore, Iowa City, IA

December, 2021

by Writer

January 1, 2022

IOWA CITY, IA—When talking to painter Jessica Dzielinski about her recent opening of Cruel & Thin, the first thing she addressed to me was not any particular painting or the process of curating behind the show. The first thing she addressed was the experience of installing the show with curator Dorian Dean.


What was narrated to me could only be the plot of a true Midwestern art gallery install day: scavenging wooded areas for the right length of stick to fasten a painting to for hanging, testing various shades of an unpleasant but oddly comforting brown color at the Menards paint mixing desk, and preparing a “ritualistic feast” in the gallery during the late hours of install—food for the feast sourced from that very same Menards earlier that day. For those that encounter this tale, they might see the exhibition for not simply what is shown in the space but rather what it holds for Dzielinski, a ‘real’ moment that’ll write its way into her practice.

Dzielinski’s Cruel & Thin is an exhibition of recent works that is part of a year-long curatorial project by Dean being held at Prairie Lights, without a doubt the literary heart of Midwest as a bookstore situated next to the infamous Iowa Writers’ Workshop. It is because of this nontraditional gallery space tucked away in the café of the bookstore’s second floor that Dean asked the painter to exhibit her work there. Dzielinski is a proponent of nontraditional installation spaces, advocating for hanging a painting in the bedroom or a coffee shop—an almost punk approach to displaying work that removes it from the script of a white-walled room but still having the work maintain its integrity and presence. The painter specifies this approach as being separate from purely decorative work, or ‘coffee shop art,’ in that there’s a specific sensibility that comes from viewing artwork in spaces that we regularly occupy. She goes on to say that spaces have the ability to sanitize or support work, and that the traditional installation space isn’t always conducive to how we’d like work to be experienced.

Dzielinski with Everlasting Picnic, Oil and charcoal on dumpster canvas, 52"x72" - 2020

It is in these awkward, atypical spaces that Dzielinski’s paintings climb their narrative arch, the made-to-be-gallery walls supporting the awkward quality of her characters starring in the mundane myths of her practice. The painter describes the flexibility and fluidity of these figures as comic-like in that they function much in the same way a cartoon character would, their actions hyper exaggerated through their body. The figures intertwined and strung across the surfaces of these works, Dzielinski’s comic book characters, take on narrative tropes in order to depict personal experiences of the painter through a warped, fictive lens that capture an almost embarrassingly human doing—private acts with no audience like painting your toenails or having boring sex. Couple it with coiled snakes, Hallmark garbage slogans, and obnoxious rainbows and hearts and you’re left with an image Dzielinski describes as “undesirable but potent with possibilities.”

Curator Dorian Dean with Dzielinski's piece at Prairie Lights Bookstore, Iowa City, IA

Dzielinski’s work is indulgent, exploring the glurge behind ordinary instances through an interplay between sentimental imagery and altering treatments. These paintings are acidic, trippy, and psychedelic but maintain their reality and relatable capacity.

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