ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — A 1940s pinup leans from a stool into a body of water, her rubber-gloved hands churning the waves as the sun blazes.
Culled from a triad of photo realism, Surrealism and Pop Art, the painting is a collage of photography and oil, of fantasy and portrait wrapped in a ménage of mystery.
Jennifer Nehrbass is both the model and the artist. With gallery representation in Denver; Park City, Utah; Linz, Austria; and at Albuquerque’s Central Features, she moved from 10 years of design at Ralph Lauren to the near North Valley in the Los Griegos neighborhood.
It’s been a personal journey from small-town Wisconsin to the top of the fashion food chain to a converted New Mexico carport-turned-studio. A roadrunner named “Joan” clicks outside the window.
The painting – “Exiting Empire” – began with a forested background before it was returned by the Albuquerque Museum and the artist changed the painting. Nehrbass’ husband photographed her costumed as the model in echoes of photographer Cindy Sherman.
Sherman is known for changing her persona with costumes and makeup to examine women’s roles in society.
The pinup is obviously uncomfortable in her highly stylized background.
“She’s in a messy situation,” the artist acknowledged.
Nehrbass based a “cameo” series of oval portraits on the Margaret Atwood novel “The Penelopiad.” The book describes Homer’s Penelope recounting her life with Odysseus.
“He’s always gone and she has all these suitors and they all want to take her money,” Nehrbass said. “He comes back and he kills all her handmaids.”
Central Features owner Nancy Zastudil has carried Nehrbass’ work since she opened the gallery in 2014. Central Features is something of a hybrid; it’s a commercial gallery with sponsor support, making it eligible for grants.
“First of all, I love the scale; she works really large,” Zastudil said. “I love that she started out using her own body and she focuses on the female body. I love that she can replicate the patterns of textiles really well.”
Nehrbass’ landscapes begin as collages pieced together like crazy quilts after an online photo search.
“I love found imagery,” Nehrbass said. “I will take a mountain in Austria and something from Montana and it’s completely made up. This is the romanticization of that landscape. I like that it’s clean, that you can see the cuts.
“I need things crisp,” she added. “I try to paint messy and it doesn’t work.”
Nehrbass grew up in Port Washington, Wis., where her artistic leanings surfaced early through coloring, stitching and clay. In high school, her thoughts turned to architecture until the required physics and math stopped her.
She graduated from the University of Wisconsin with a degree in studio arts and textile design.
Then Nehrbass spotted a tiny Ralph Lauren internship ad in the back of the New York Times magazine. She borrowed $200 from her mother and flew to the city during spring break. “I felt like Mary Tyler Moore,” she said. “I had a red cape on.”
She landed a $7-an-hour two-week internship that bloomed into a 10-year career.
“The first day I went in, I got cupcakes for somebody,” she said. “I spent two weeks mixing two shades of blue for an antique document they wanted to reproduce.”
But she soon switched from gofer and blender to designing sheets, towels and wallpaper.
“It was like getting a master’s degree in design,” she said. “But I missed the art part of my life. After I started painting (again), I said, ‘I can’t go back to the corporate world anymore.'”
She visited a friend in Santa Fe and fell in love with New Mexico.
Nehrbass earned a master’s of art degree at New York University, then a master’s in fine arts at the University of New Mexico. UNM offered more than double the studio space and personalized attention.
She dabbled in life as an adjunct professor before turning to painting full-time.
Her influences include the contemporary artists Mickalene Thomas and Ridley Howard. She likes to visit Home Depot to gather color chips.
“You pull a little bit from everybody,” she said. “You’re always looking for the next shot. If I don’t get to the studio for a couple days, everybody knows it. I tell my husband, ‘You didn’t marry a housefrau.’
“Painting’s always like a jealous husband.”