Carried across the country by a Seattle transplant, a little piece of Cincinnati finds its way into the Emerald City’s soil.  Now on display at Specialist, a gallery and artist-run space, artist Jay Stern features his first solo exhibition: I Remember Feeling Far.  With a centrally creative background, Stern has worked in the industries of music, and presently, in architecture and interior design, both of which played their part in the culmination of the show, either by way of content or circumstance.  I Remember Feeling Far is comprised of both painting and sculpture, and showcases Stern’s formal training in art, as well as his independent practice within his studio.  Through these avenues he explores the topics of person, place, and memory, all couched between the experiences of holding on and letting go.  His work is deeply personal while equally knowable, attributes characteristic of Stern himself.  I had the privilege of talking with the artist and long-time friend about the show, his process, and why I wish I were in Washington to see it for myself.

Jay Stern, photo courtesy of Talia Green

T H E  S H O W

Leow: “When did the idea of the show really begin for you? What was the inspiration for it?

Stern: “This show is highly inspired by the years between the year I left Cincinnati and right now.  Prior to moving, there were all these kind of experiences that I had and memories that I went through that I wanted to make work about.  But because I wasn’t making anything at all it just kind of bottled up so I had all these vessels of information – I was writing kind of poetry about these experiences and in a way I think I was feeling a lot of nostalgia for Ohio and wanting to hold on to these memories because I knew that with time passing and distance those things were going to start fading pretty quickly.  When I came back to painting and decided to start working on a body of work, I went back to these notes and these poems and pieces of writing I made, and that was kind of the start of the show.” 

Leow: “So the paintings took you a year and a half to two years to create, but really the process began way before that.”

Stern: “Yeah and I was looking at a lot of art by folks, a lot of which were American abstract expressionists and modern American artists, whose work had a lot to do with their life and where they lived and what they were up to rather than these grandiose concepts that artists are kind of fueling their work on now.  You look at David Hockney’s career or Richard Diebenkorn, or Milton Avery, and really you kind of see a little picture book of where they were.  And so it was important for me to start documenting (in a way this is a documenting effort), which is where the title of the show comes in, of how I was feeling far away; I remember feeling far.”

“Keep the Kids Near the Lake”, 2019
Oil, colored pencil, and house paint on panel, 30 x 24
Photo courtesy of the artist

This sense of longing and remembering is embodied beautifully here. Rife with nostalgia, Keep the Kids Near the Lake is a transpiration of Stern’s writing years, turning his literal language into a visual one.  As the artist would put it himself, it’s “emotion through the physical nature of memory”.  This sentimentalism is achieved not only conceptually but formally, as well. The material itself has implications of place, being house paint and not artist paint.  The spatial cues of the composition are contemplative, pointing the viewer outward instead of in. A portrait of place rather than person, a moment of memory instead of time, Keep the Kids Near the Lake is poignant and nostalgic and a telling introduction to the show.

Y O U R  P R O C E S S

Leow: “How do the mediums of paint and sculpture allow you to communicate what you want?  Do you approach them similarly?

Stern: “So the paintings are about architecture and space – I’m curious about the direct relationship between memory in a space and the materials that are used to build the architecture that the memories are encapsulated in.  Luckily I work for an architecture firm and am surrounded by these materials every day.  The physicality of the sculptures is represented of the paintings, so in a way they have their own conversation naturally in the space.  As far as my approach with both of them, the sculptures definitely have a more sporadic, less planned behavior to them.  A lot of the sculptures that are being shown, in the work “dusky” specifically, are items that I’ve collected from the firm for over a year that sit in my studio and I move them around and paint them.  So there is this kind of childlike playfulness to them.  And they almost look like kids’ toys, too, they have this kitschy vibe to them.  So the word sporadic comes to mind and I think why that is is because I’m working with an object rather than creating a composition from zero to one hundred.  When I make a painting I have to create the thing from nothing where the object is already a shape and kind of speaks to me before I can really speak to it.”   

Leow: “I think painting as a medium can be really intense, and specifically your paintings because they’re packed not only conceptually but formally, too, so I feel like the sculptures are this moment of relief, almost a break, for the viewer and you even.”

Stern: “Well they are, they’re dissected from the composition I put together in the paintings – they’re all broken out and can breathe a little bit.”

“dusky”, 2020
Wood, paper, plastic, cardboard, charcoal, acrylic and oil paint
Photo courtesy of the artist

This moment of levity, of breadth and space, comes to us by way of planks and pulp and nails and stone.  Reposed on a tiered platform on the gallery floor, dusky, is a landscape of structural materials salvaged and sanctified by the artist.  While architecture usually draws your eye up, this installation draws your eye down, reversing the role of person and place. Abstracting pieces of his present and physical environment, Stern memorializes the places that hold us and what we inhabit.

As sculptures, the pieces are lovely: something mundane and unrefined given the chance of color and merit.  As a concept, even more: it’s memory materialized, gathered, and changed.

W H Y  I T  M A T T E R S

Leow: “Where do you see this body of work fitting into the larger art world / current art dialogue? 

Stern: “People talk about trends or the circular nature of interests in the art world so for somebody like me who is interested in oil paintings from 1930-1970, in a way that puts me into a category of art that is maybe seen as more traditional.  So you have people like me (and again, grand statement here) and then you have kids who are making art about the internet, but in a way I think my work is actually in both camps.   The Internet is bringing memory to the forefront via photography, video, social media, and how we understand time as it goes by.” 

Leow: “Even how we’re conducting this review puts you in both camps: I’m reviewing your art work via Dropbox and telephone.” 

Stern: “Yeah so current art world is understanding that you’re going to see a lot of physical things that exist in the world through pixels first.”

“SMS”, 2019
Oil and acrylic of panel, 20 x 20
Photo courtesy of the artist


While Stern addresses the query of memory as it pertains to our physical world in previous pieces, he begs the same question to a much more pervasive realm: the digital one.  A message received, or one that was sent, SMS is the carrier of the complex relationship between flesh and fidelity.  Using formal components to communicate conceptual ones, Stern obscures his composition, leaving the viewer perfectly poised between object and form.  This back and forth is ever present among the twenty first century romantics: the simultaneous belief and disbelief in your screen, your memory, and the vast in between.  How do we reconcile spatial barriers through such an incorporeal existence? What do technologies afford us and how do they in turn limit us?  When do we discern and when do we revel in the dissonance?

This piece of work is particularly successful because of its range and its personal resonance with me, a writer, reviewing it from 2,324 miles away.  What I don’t see in our ‘shared folder’ is the scale of the work, how either the quaint size of the canvas draws you in, or how the drama of the sweeping composition envelops you altogether.  What I don’t feel is how the pieces function together, how they compete or subscribe to one another, being greater not in part but as a whole.  What I don’t experience are the nuances that occur so fortuitously on any given gallery wall, the light pouring in from the windows, the shadows cast against the floor. What I don’t have is my memory to lean on, to remember how I felt or fabricate what I forgot in the seconds, minutes, and days leaving the show.

Wide shot, photo courtesy of the artist

To see the show in the human-form, visit Specialist, now through March 21.

–Hannah Leow

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