Artist First

Jemima Kirke Is More Than Just a ‘Girl’

Playing Jessa is both a blessing and a curse for Jemima Kirke. It helped the artist/actress win her latest exhibit in San Francisco, but she’d rather be seen as, first of all, an artist.

Jessica Miglio/HBO

Before the world came to know her as the actress who plays the wistful bohemian Jessa Johansson on the hit HBO series Girls, the 28-year-old London-born, Brooklyn-based Jemima Kirke was an artist. Kirke even earned a BFA in painting from one of the most prestigious art schools in the country, the Rhode Island School of Design, the alma mater of artists who include Jenny Holzer, Kara Walker, and the late Francesca Woodman. Her art career may have taken an unexpected detour due to her role on Girls, but a new exhibition proves that Kirke, who maintains that she’s an artist before an actress, is still on her way to making it.

Last Friday, San Francisco’s Fouladi Projects opened an exhibition of Kirke’s paintings entitled, “Platforms,” which runs through May 10. Kirke’s second solo show features oil portraits of women in her life. The exhibition almost didn’t happen; Kirke was initially hesitant when the women who run the gallery, Holly Fouladi and Hope Bryson, approached her about staging a show of her work after discovering her email address on her artist website.

“I said no at first because I was a little bit unsure if I wanted to take gigs based purely on the Girls celebrity, which is, of course, how they found me,” explained Kirke. “I realized very quickly that’s a silly principle to have, because that is how they know who I am, and that I should be grateful for that, and I am now.”

For the exhibition, Kirke selected seven oil-on-canvas portraits of females who are closely intertwined with her life, along with two self-portraits in watercolor. All of her subjects sat for her, including her personal trainer Cadence Dubus, who she painted nude, outstretched in an odalisque pose — “She’s a dancer mainly,” says Kirke. “I just really do love her way of looking at fitness.”

One subject she couldn’t get to sit still was her three-year-old daughter Rafaella, who she captured with her hands raised in the air while dressed in a white chemise and striped tights. “Every now and then I’d get her to hold a position, but that painting, it wasn’t about getting the exact proportions down, or getting exactly what I saw in front of me,” said Kirke. “It was just about getting her energy and her presence, getting her essentials down on my canvas.” A self-portrait of Kirke pregnant with her daughter is also on display.

Kirke rediscovered painting — “I got obsessed,” she says — about five years ago after a period making collages and drawings on paper. Kirke’s paintings are about more than simply replicating what’s in front of her; they have an unspoken honesty about them, revealing the underlying intensity of her subjects. Her work is clearly derivative of the style of Alice Neel and Lucian Freud — two artists she admires who she also credits as influences. “At the very least I’m just trying to get some sort of presence on the canvas,” Kirke explains.

As far as her role on Girls goes, Kirke says it has been both a blessing and a curse for her art career. “A blessing because people are looking now, but it doesn’t always make you very credible. I think the double career turns people off, especially when it’s an artist,” Kirke says.

As for Jessa’s drug habit, which the character faced in the just-wrapped season three, Kirke says, “I don’t know if it’s something life threatening. I think her life is in disarray for bigger reasons than the drugs.” But don’t ask her for spoilers about what’s ahead for Jessa in season four, which starts filming in mid-April. “I have not ever read anything,” Kirke claims.Platformsis on display through May 10 at Fouladi Projects in San Francisco.