“Evelyn,” 2001, oil on canvas, 46″ x 38″
Photo: Phocasso / J.W. White Courtesy of Hackett-Freedman Gallery
Aficionados of portraiture tend to divide the genre into opposing camps, of Romanticism versus Naturalism. Among contemporary portraitists, Seattle-based painter Ann Gale falls somewhere in the middle of this continuum, as eight of her elegantly moody portraits demonstrate in the Portland Art Museum’s ongoing APEX series. Gale paints the kind of visages and physiognomies you might expect to see beneath Seattle’s heavy gray skies: ashen, Zoloft-ready men and women hunched before muted, putty-colored backgrounds-and yet the artist enlivens her subjects via twinkly, impressionistic brushstrokes that pop and recede with Hofmann-like push/pull. This is Gale’s viewpoint and paradox: a scintillating technique deployed in the service of an enervating sense of desolation.
Born in 1966, Gale, whose mother is also an artist, grew up in Rhode Island and began painting around age 7. “I was obsessed with painting people,” she recalls. “I used to love football season, because my father would sit very, very still.” In her undergraduate studies at Rhode Island College and graduate work at Yale, even as she studied printmaking and sculpture, she found herself returning to painting, still fascinated by “that thing about a person’s face that sticks with you, to the point that you’re still thinking about it later.” After Yale she exhibited in galleries in New York, San Francisco and Seattle, where she eventually accepted a teaching position at the University of Washington School of Art. Currently she is on sabbatical, painting full-time thanks to a Guggenheim Fellowship she was awarded last year. The APEX show is her first solo outing in a museum.
It is not a stretch to call Gale’s studio practice extreme. Over a period ranging from three months to two years (!), she sits with her subjects in claustrophobic proximity, staring them down, sometimes putting in earplugs and ignoring them “if they get too gabby.” Once she painted her husband reclining in a full bathtub. The transition of warm water to lukewarm to cold is evinced in his expression, which is not that of a happy camper. The artist, however, is not interested in the chipper personae her subjects don for the world-at-large but in deeper, dourer selves that more honestly express the physical and psychic depreciations that accrue over time. The themes that preoccupy her are not human efficacy or effervescence but obsolescence and ennui, manifested in the slouched shoulders of Rachel (2007), the sad-sack eyes of Gary with Dark Wall (2004); awkwardly positioned genitalia in Gary; worry lines and nasolabial folds in Self-Portrait with Blue Stripes; and sagging breasts and belly fat in Babs with Ribbons.
As emotionally and existentially loaded as these works are, it would be inaccurate to peg Gale simply as a psychological portraitist, intent on journalistically mapping the contours of a model’s soul. Rather, she pivots between a trio of sometimes conflicting directives: externalizing the subject’s inner life; dispassionately recording the shifting qualities of light and shadow over the course of a session; and allowing her impressions and memories to lend their own, Proustian subtexts. “I start off trying to figure out what’s going on with the person in front of me,” she explains, “but then maybe the light starts to bring out a memory or emotion or something about myself that I can’t escape, and it all starts to get tangled up.”
When the painting is finished, the images do not always resemble their subjects in the standard realist sense-which suits the artist just fine. “Likeness doesn’t drive the work at this point; accuracy does,” she explains. “But it’s not accuracy to the model; it’s accuracy to my perception, and that’s a very different thing.”
“Apex: Ann Gale” remains on view at the Portland Art Museum, 1219 SW Park Ave., from October 13, 2007-February 10, 2008. (503) 226-2811 www.portlandartmuseum.org
She will be represented with a solo show at Hackett-Freedman Gallery, in San Francisco, from March 6-April 28, 2008. 250 Sutter St., S.F. (415) 362-7152 www.hackettfreedman.com