Editor's note: The following essay was rekeyed and reprinted on November 6, 2008 in Resource Library with permission of the author and Hackett-Freedman Gallery, 250 Sutter St. 4th Floor, San Francisco, CA 94108. The essay was excerpted from the illustrated catalogue titled "Ann Gale." Images accompanying the text in the catalogue were not reproduced with this reprinting. If you have questions or comments regarding the essay, or if you are interested in obtaining a copy of the catalogue, please contact Hackett-Freedman Gallery at either this email or web address:


Ann Gale's Interstitial Portraits

by Mark Van Proyen



There are two distinct histories contained within the practice of portraiture, and they might be at odds with one another. One story attends to the commemorative representation of specific persons, such as portrait busts of Athenian statesmen or the funerary representation of Coptic cadavers. This history finds its zenith in Rembrandt's late autoretratos, and was also given very significant life in Alice Neel's paintings. The plot thickens, however, when we turn to the other history, which is the categorical representation of generalized persons defined by factors such as body type or socioeconomic position. For example, when we look upon the visage of an Egyptian pharaoh, we do not see the depiction of a specific individual, so much as we witness a representative embodiment of an idea -- in this case, that of the guiding light of an exceedingly stable social hierarchy. This also holds true for Whistler's famous portrait of his mother, who was recaptured as a psychologically removed avatar of pre-Victorian womanhood in an 1872 painting, the actual title of which is simply Arrangement in Grey and Black No.1. Needless to say, Andy Warhol's celebrity portraits provide an extreme example of this categorical representation in that the people portrayed sacrificed their humanity for the sake of becoming media phantoms.

It is tempting to describe the various ways that these two histories contradict each other, but the important art historical point is to understand that these two competing aims are magically synthesized in the best examples of the genre. In recent years, such a synthesis has become increasingly difficult to accomplish, owing to the fact that the schism dividing portraiture's double history has become much harder to bridge. One source of this new difficulty is postmodern theories that insist on subjectivity being only an illusory "effect" muddying the waters of real identity. The latter term is shorthand for the person understood as a demographic entity arbitrarily constructed at the crossroads of various social pressures. Yet, however well this point may be taken, we must acknowledge that we still consider ourselves to be subjects. That is to say, we naturally view ourselves as the protagonists in the story of our own lives.

This act of acknowledgement lives at the core of Ann Gale's recent paintings. The common thread that unites the people portrayed in them is their seemingly keen awareness of how it feels to live a reflective life within the psychological space defined by both of the aforementioned histories of the portrait. Still, the crucial thing about them is that they all show signs of a subtle and unresolved struggle against being completely defined by those histories. In almost every instance, Gale's subjects are centrally targeted in the painting's taut compositions. Oftentimes they are literally cornered, almost as if they were a hunter's quarry locked in the crosshairs of a scoped rifle. This view is supported by Gale's brushstrokes, which tend to cluster in warps and woofs of vertical and horizontal gestures as can be seen in Gary (2004). It is given additional emphasis by the paintings' frequent positioning of their subjects at a point just below the viewer's eye level. This orientation suggests that they are awaiting some kind of judgment or punishment, biding a moment of anxious time while they decide whether or not to defy or capitulate to their situation.

Emotionally and physically, these people inhabit a multitude of interstitial gray areas. They may not be middle-aged, but are close to the point where their yesterdays will outnumber their tomorrows. They are neither large nor small, healthy nor sick, fat nor thin. We cannot be sure if they are even happy or sad. Indeed, they come across as rather stoic. In an America where the middle class has been living under three full decades of economic siege, these portrayals inhabit the space between victim and protagonist precisely at the moment when a new century is emerging and the older one has yet to fade.

In several exceptional paintings, Gale paints herself, but not quite as if she were just another member of the cast of complex characters inhabiting her other works. Rather, she portrays herself as the curious observer, a bit removed and a bit guarded, but still willing to turn her high-powered gaze in the direction of self-scrutiny, perhaps as a way of fulfilling an implied debt of honor in relation to her other subjects. Aside from the fact that they focus only on the artist's head and face, the unique thing about the self-portraits is the way that they can appear somewhat more focused than the other paintings, while also being a little more playful and improvised in their execution. This may be due to the fact that they sport a slightly brighter palette, but it could also bespeak a kind of relaxed comfort that the artist may feel when she is alone in her studio. For example, in the Rembrandt-esque Self-Portrait with Black and White Shirt (2007) we see the artist inquiring into her own inquiring gaze, while also enjoying a touch of painterly fantasy in her depiction of folded fabric.

The more chromatic self-portraits aside, we should note that Gale's characteristic palette more often leans toward a somber, autumnal tonalism. However, within that array of subdued mid-tones, we can still see an astounding range of subtle contrasts. A close viewing of the way that she deploys violet grays next to yellow grays, or red grays next to blue-hued ones leads us to be amazed at the range of visual differentiation that Gale gives to the painterly articulation of a simple shadow or illuminated skin tone, as is evidenced in Babs with Ribbons (2007). Still, we also see occasional flourishes of a lively chromatic invention, particularly around the subject's eyes and necks. These flashes of relatively bright color have an engaging psychological effect, creating powerful sense memories of that moment when the last sign of autumn's chromatic riot gives way to the bleakness of winter's frost. Her articulations of the richness of skin tones are likewise complex, harking back to the portraits of Titian and Rembrandt, as well as contemporary artists such as Lucian Freud or Jenny Saville. In the spirit of their work, Gale uses layers of complex colors to create an analogy between the physical sedimentation of oil paint and the slow layering of time and experience that is vividly etched in the faces and bodies of her subjects.

Given the way that Gale paints her subjects as being formed by successive deposits of complex colors, it is easy to see how the paintings cast the sitters as the bearers of life's lessons. But Gale reverses this normal polarity of form and content in one very important way. Slowly it dawns on us that we might have the idea of subject and rendition backwards, that the anxious and stoic people she paints are best understood as allegorical annotations describing the burdens that fall upon the contemporary practice of painting itself. As an art form, painting is oddly positioned between traditional definitions that can seem confining and over-familiar, while at the same time it feels obligated to resist a post-human technological future that portends intolerable degrees of impersonality. This is the contradictory space in which every sane person lives, and this is the important point. For not only are we reminded of the crucial difference between imaginative art and informational illustration (the latter conveys the operational facts of a given subject, while the former stems from the responsive emotions that come part-and-parcel with that subject's apprehension filtered through a sensibility), we are also made aware of the vital linkage of imagination to a tangible physicality that struggles to sustain its own permanence in a world of ghosts. By witnessing the way that this struggle plays out in Gale's paintings, we can see something of their wisdom: they remind us that we have no choice but to live life's many questions in recognition that the only answer is that there is no answer, easy or otherwise.

© 2008 Mark Van Proyen

About the Catalogue

The above essay is excerpted from Ann Gale (2008). A selecton of 15 figurative paintings and drawings created between 2004 and 2008. 28 pages. Published on the occasion of the exhibition Ann Gale: New Paintings held March 6 - April 26, 2008 at Hackett-Freedman Gallery, San Francisco, CA. (right: photo of front cover of catalogue, courtesy of Hackett-Freedman Gallery)

About the Author

Mark Van Proyen is Associate Professor of Studio Practice and Interdisciplinary Studies at the San Francisco Art Institute. His most recent book is Administrativism and its Discontents (New York: State University at Stony Brook, 2006).


Resource Library editor's note:

Resource Library wishes to extend appreciation to Raven Munsell, Hackett-Freedman Gallery, for help concerning permission for reprinting the above text.

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