Kenneth Baker reviews Ann Gale's exhibit at Dolby Chadwick, San Francisco Chronicle

Ann Gale extracts delight amid bleakness

January 2013

by Kenneth Baker

Is Ann Gale's "Robert With Grey Shirt" (2012) a truthful depiction of appearance or about the unnumbered hours involved in the work's creation? 

To liken the work of Seattle painter Ann Gale to that of the late Lucian Freud would feel like overpraising it. Yet they apparently shared a belief in depictive painting as an irreplaceable mode of scrutinizing humanity.

Like Freud, Gale concentrates on portraiture. She also dislikes the term "portrait" because it encourages viewers to ascribe a clairvoyance to the painter, while what painters actually know better than anyone is their sitters' - and everyone else's - opacity.

And like Freud in her merciless attentiveness to the unlovely uniqueness of her subjects, Gale keeps alive the ancient mystery of art's power to mine pleasures from manifestly depressing realities.

Gale frequently uses herself as a subject, evidently taking no pride in her appearance. The beauty of her work lies in the decisions that flicker, more or less illegibly, from the mosaic of hues and brush and knife marks that define her images.

If we take "Robert With Grey Shirt" (2012) literally as a likeness, he appears grotesque, his hair and face camouflage patterns of greens and violets, with faint pulses of rose and orange winking through.

But suppose we consider the painting's purpose to be not truth to appearances but to the fluctuating effort, resolve and conclusion of the unnumbered hours it involved.

Gale's somewhat mannered paint handling - its level of detail corresponding to the fine particulars of a sitter's appearance - might inscribe fatigue or flagging purpose on the part of painter, model or both. Her technique even seems to anticipate exhaustion of a viewer's attention. Every Gale portrait has the aspect of an endurance test.

The bleakness of her vision, as the whole show conveys it, corresponds a little too easily to the mood of a cultural moment pervaded by apprehension and spiritual exhaustion. Gale's work suffers most, paradoxically, from her failure to distinguish adequately the tenor of her art from that of its time.