Ann Gale: Painter of Accrued Intimacy (Review)
Ann Gale’s work is observational. She utilizes familiar models who sit for long periods of time in her studio in the Pacific Northwest, where good light is scarce for much of the year, thus making it a mutable element to contend with. As a result, the visage presented is one that captures gravity and its effect on the model, while chasing an elusive light that makes itself variably known. The artist struggles between the act of deep knowledge and familiarity with her models and the challenge of capturing them in transition as illumination shifts. The resulting completed canvases combine both the heavily worked adjustments in the contours of paint color and texture with the tonal elements that make up how we view and perceive light sources, particularly those reflecting off of the human body and its surroundings.
Those expecting any kind of traditional portraiture will be disappointed. Not because Gale doesn’t capture the model, but rather, her purpose doesn’t relate to the traditions of portrait painting, which historically originated in the commissioned depiction of patrons and powerful people for the purpose of showing-off wealth. This meant trying to achieve literalness with a consciousness effort to enhance the beauty of the sitter. Here, Gale fully embraces the notion that a painting is self-sufficient. It needn’t be in service of a pretty picture any more than be trying to convey a message or give an accounting of itself. What Gale is after is capturing the experience of being fully present and true to the moment with her model. These paintings are the artifacts of a lived experience, first and foremost, thereafter they can be viewed as art objects separate and apart from the original experience of communion between artist and sitter.
There is much to draw the viewer into this visually haunting work. How shapes are rendered with short yet confident brush strokes, sometimes angular as if making hash marks, can nevertheless present clear characteristics. Gale seems to be painting with strips of color, isolated into, in many cases, small brush strokes; where a sense of traditional blending is achieved because of the close proximity of these overlapping marks, as opposed to the mixing of pigment or wet on wet application. Settings are less important in terms of conveying space, but may well be paramount to the picture itself when viewed in combination with the figurative elements. In addition to balance, there is mood and abstraction present, which again disrupts the traditions of portraiture. The non-objective elements of setting draw the viewer back to the subject, ostensibly, while anchoring the picture planes that compete for consideration. This makes the figure-ground relationships critical.
The models, under the weight of gravity, usually cannot maintain their pose and chosen expression for the length of time Gale requires to make her painting; often several months. What Gale receives and conveys is therefore the resting face, often one depicting a blandness or something akin to a desperate presence, that can arguably be the truth of someone’s still appearance or existence, despite the body’s inherent motility. Not usually pleasing to the eye in terms of traditional beauty, it nevertheless presents an unadulterated honesty that is closest to a state of knowing. Knowing in the sense that the viewer can surmise the painter has a close association with her subject. Sharing closed spaces together for long periods of time, likely in silence, will create an intimacy that conversation cannot supplant. One cannot help but imagine the painter’s gaze upon the model with no interest in posing the model or prescribing a particular expression. Yes, body placement is important, but in this manner, the paintings can be said to be authentic and more accurate than simply a literal portrait. If they seem to lack emotion it is only because the model is rendered in a moment of personal contemplation within the hush of lived chaos. Gale lets us see the human form weighed down by reality and refuses to surrender to a contemporary conceit about how the model should appear.
Looking closely at these paintings causes the viewer to wonder where the light source is coming from, how it is reflecting off of the flesh of the sitter, and where any natural light from a window of Gale’s studio might be in relation to the sitter. The elusive light is precisely why Gale resorts to the hash mark making that characterizes her style, for no other type of brush work would be able to convey the fleeting luminosity of Seattle’s light as precisely. The accuracy of her paintings is striking particularly given that the mark making has more in common with abstraction than with realism, yet she does ultimately capture a realism that relies on composites made from multiple marks forming geometric linear forms. Viewed close up, the experience contrasts with that rendered from a distance, highlighting the necessity of viewing the pictures in their totality. This emphasizes the juxtaposition of cooler and warmer elements. The combination of light intensity and how it is distributed across the composition is handled carefully. There appears to be less color in some areas, employed with lower contrast, with the resulting desaturation presenting different temperatures of grey. This results in the viewer’s eye not getting trapped in small areas of the painting. One can both see those isolated smaller areas while appreciating the obfuscation of focus, resulting in elevating the whole.
These paintings are not fully abstract, of course, except in so far as they pertain to the general atmosphere of the painting. Bodies are present and easily recognizable, but Gale is interested in rendering the model in compositions that seem broken up into a multitude of planes as she contends with the seasonal fluctuations streaming into her studio. The technique of brush strokes welcomes a bleeding of the figures into the abstract settings, thus communicating the ephemeral presence we all inhabit. Her success in capturing this intangibility creates an ever present push and pull within these compositions. The brush marks also convey a fluidity which may be the most accurate way to render the body’s tonal qualities.
In “Shawna with Purple” [Oil on mylar and board, 14 x 11 inches, 2020], thicker brush strokes are utilized to blur the outline of the figure into the background which itself cascades into the figure, thus blending the composition together. In “Portrait with Plant” [Oil on linen wrapped board, 14 x 11 inches, 2020], Gale obscures the model’s eyes as the figure is rendered in front of a nearly realized abstract expressionist composition, giving it a plein air landscape quality as the viewer instinctively looks for recognizable forms. In the largest painting in the exhibition, “Standing” [Oil on canvas, 72 x 48 inches, 2020], a nearly life-size single figure dominates the vertical space and gazes directly at the viewer with curved lines forming a wood grain visible in the background. The marks in “Standing” are a departure from her usual straighter short lines, yet her restraint remains, as the figure seems to be one with the drapery depicted behind her and which augments the careful contours of color and texture that work to comprise the painting as a whole.
Painting is a visual language, while psychology is one pursued through language and confession. These paintings confide because of the painter’s steadfast pursuit of accuracy without regard to realism. While it would be too much to say they are psychological portraits, they can in fact be read as reaching deep inside of the model’s mental dissociation from time and place, which multiple extended sitting sessions would compel. A familiarity reverberates because these models have become so well known to the artist. One senses that there isn’t any pressure or expectation to present a certain way. The sitter’s guard is down thus offering a voyeuristic portal to see someone in their most authentic and natural manner. Yet, the painter respects the personal space of the sitter and does not indulge in analysis beyond what the sitter conveys through physical presence. In this way, Gale takes portraiture to a space all of her own, still subjective, yet penetrating and experiential in the moment. These paintings convey the beauty of an unadulterated and raw honesty.
Human beings are mechanically and psychologically complicated. We each hold energy and the body is known to even vibrate, ever so slightly, as we remain “still”. There is no stillness or noiselessness in nature. These paintings capture this excitement, however slight, because Gale has stripped away the space between model and painter, revealing vulnerabilities and fragile existence, thus making the conveyance of intimacy complete. —Matt Gonzalez
Ann Gale, New Paintings, Dolby Chadwick Gallery, on view through May 1, 2021