Jessie Homer French’s Paintings of Wildfires Reveal the Beauty in Destruction

Stealth bombers, wind farms, controlled burns, and cemeteries: These are some things that 83-year-old self-taught artist Jessie Homer French finds beautiful. She said this matter-of-factly before the opening event of her solo exhibition at Various Small Fires in Los Angeles, and is surprised to hear that not everyone would describe them that way. “Surely, other people find stealth bombers beautiful, and fire? Fire’s absolutely beautiful.” Coming from someone else, the sentiment might register as untrue or intentionally contentious, but looking at Homer French’s intricate painting of jimsonweed blooming between scorched pinyon trees, or another of a pearlescent plane soaring over a field of turbines, the viewer understands her sincerity. You see what she sees: a world alternately ravaged and renewed by man’s capacity for devastation and rebirth.

Homer French’s gift for seeing what others miss began when she was young. Raised in the Adirondacks in the 1940s, she spent most of her childhood playing in the woods by herself. Spurred by a fascination with what she couldn’t see beneath the stream beside her house, she caught her first fish with her hands at age three. “I used to have these magical dreams about the fish and life underwater,” says Homer French. “I’ve always been drawn to hidden things.” Eight decades later, the preoccupation manifests in prescient paintings that offer a revelatory glimpse of the invisible, a rapturous view of the natural world, and gentle instruction for spotting the seedling unfurling from the cinders.

Pinyon Crest, 2023
Jessie Homer French

Various Small Fires

In “Normal Landscapes,” on view through February 17th, Homer French’s anti-perspectival, faux-naïf narrative paintings reveal the cyclical nature of life. Remembrance Day (2021), for instance, depicts mourners walking between tombstones and lucent crosses adorned with flickering candles in a cemetery ensconced by towering conifers. Beneath them, the underground is depicted in a cross section, revealing the carefully dressed men, women, and children at rest in their graves. In Lower Rush Creek (1994), a rushing river teeming with glinting trout bisects the remains of a charred forest where scrubby grasses grow beneath blackened branches. Though fire is absent from that composition, it makes a magnificent appearance in the five-foot-wide Boreal Burning (2022), where ferocious orange, yellow, and red flames consume a row of evergreens beneath an ominous, smoke-stained sky. ​​

Despite the urgent, striking nature of her paintings, Homer French spent the last 50 years painting in relative obscurity, unnoticed by the art world until just recently. “She was the only artist at the 2019 Art Basel Hong Kong that no one had ever heard of,” explained Esther Kim Varet, founder of Various Small Fires, who was largely responsible for introducing Homer French’s work to the public. “The fair committee decided she was the one true discovery in the entire Discovery section.” Since then, her work has spread across the world much like the raging wildfires she paints: She had a solo show at MASSIMODECARLO’s Milan gallery, two of her paintings reproduced on billboards above the High Line in New York City, and works in both the Venice Biennale in 2022 and the Hammer Museum’s “Made in L.A.” exhibition in 2023.

Boreal Burning, 2022
Jessie Homer French

Various Small Fires

“People are looking for sincerity, and because it’s so hard to come by now, when you find it, you want to hold onto the experience,” said Kim Varet of the artist’s recent surge in popularity. “It’s difficult to articulate exactly what it is about her work that makes you love it, but you feel it when you see it. Everyone does.” When pressed to name it, that elusive quality that makes the paintings so compelling, Kim Varet points toward a lack of pretension, a straightforward earnestness, and an “existential honesty that resonates with what and who we are right now.” Indeed, the two biennials in which Homer French was included showed a similar tendency towards authenticity.

Considering the attention both surveys paid to textiles, it’s perhaps surprising that one of Homer French’s idyllic tapestries, playfully referred to as “mapestries,” was not chosen for inclusion in either. Made from fabric, thread, paint, and ink, these works feature hand-stitched, colorful topographical diagrams of fault lines alongside familiar landmarks and regional symbols. The Dying Sea (2021), included in the current show at Various Small Fires, depicts a crimson San Andreas Fault line arcing across a mottled peach expanse dissected by winding black interstate lines. Patches of fabric with finely painted palms, yucca trees, mountain ranges, and tilapia fishpopulate the facsimile high-desert landscape.

Remembrance Day, 2021
Jessie Homer French

Various Small Fires

Chinese Cemetary on Vancouver Island, 2023
Jessie Homer French

Various Small Fires

Ghosts, 2012
Jessie Homer French

Various Small Fires

Los Angeles Evening, 2023
Jessie Homer French

Various Small Fires

The Dump, 2023
Jessie Homer French

Various Small Fires

The Dying Sea, 2021
Jessie Homer French

Various Small Fires

The artist herself lives just west of the area shown, in an isolated, mountainous community surrounded by junipers, sagebrush, coyotes, and rabbits, rich with dizzying vistas. Born and raised in New York, Homer French has lived on the West Coast for the past five decades—first, in Los Angeles, where she met her late husband, talent agent and movie producer Robin French; then Vancouver Island, Canada; then western Oregon and La Quinta, California; and now, in the Santa Rosa Mountains above Palm Desert in a house with panoramic views like the one rendered in Pinyon Crest (2023). “Robin was always finding magical places to live,” she said. “Magical places for me to paint.”

Walking through the exhibition, Homer French pointed out other paintings of places she’s lived and a few she hasn’t or “hasn’t yet”: Ojai, California; Chernobyl, Ukraine; the North Sea. “Place is very important to me, place and narrative. Everything is narrative,” she said. Despite their cartoonish forms, flattened colors, and bucolic charm, her paintings transcend easy explanations. They’re heartfelt and mysterious, celebratory and damning, full of hope and desperate sorrow—much like the experience of being alive in these uncertain times.

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