People have comprised Gale’s primary, if sole, subject matter for a significant part of her career. As her subjects’ faces and bodies bear the greatest expressive weight and are rendered in the densest detail, her paintings are commonly regarded as portraits. Gale, however, has only recently become comfortable with the term “portrait,” settling into this art-historically-loaded though increasingly elastic concept as it’s deployed in different contexts and by different writers, artists, and scholars. Looking beyond the question of how we should look at the work, however, enables a deeper appreciation of the paintings as aesthetic and affective objects. That each face and body exudes a similar gravity—even solemnity—of expression causes the viewer to not only wonder who these people are and what they have experienced, but also prompts interest in the painter and her relationships with the models.
By urging us to consider less the nature of personhood than of the forces extant between people, Gale’s paintings open up that delicate space of inter-subjectivity. “That’s how it looks between us,” Gale responds when her models, all of whom she’s known for years, incredulously ask if they look like the figures in her portraits. Negotiating between what she sees and what she knows, Gale regards her models as both points of departure and points of return. She telescopes out from their unique bodies and personalities, absorbing environmental influences, memories, and emotions along the way before descending back down into the immediate moment.
Gale is particularly conscientious of the relationship between what she identifies as the physical and the optical. In Robert With Gray Shirt (2012), for example, we feel the pressure of the model’s bony sternum against his chest, the delicate weight of his eyes as they sink back into his skull, and the pull of cartilage around his fleshy nostrils. These very tangible elements are set off by—rather than offset by—an immaterial though not insignificant veil of light and atmosphere. Illuminated flecks of chartreuse and mauve cleave to Robert’s body while adjacent markings and gestures stir with a frenzied energy, as if responding to some unknown magnetic field. Her disinclination for one-to-one representations means that her depictions frequently violate inviolable laws of nature in unsettling yet enchanting ways. The figure’s skin in Rachel with White Robe (2011), for instance, glows brightly with a preternatural luminescence while the air around her shimmers, corona-like, in vibrant intervals of cream, lemon yellow, and violet. Rachel, however, is neither divine being nor apparition but rather a very mortal muse. Her body is fleshy and solid. The tip of her nose and edges of her ears are flushed, betraying the very human blood that flows through her imperfect capillaries. Her eyes confess to years of experience while her mouth wears a sly, quizzical expression that forges a link through time by evoking some of art history’s more celebrated portraits.
If Gale’s portraits hinge on the space between artist and subject, then how can we think about her self-portraits? How does one articulate the space between oneself as both artist and subject? More immediately, what constitutes this space? Rather than becoming mired by self- consciousness, Gale considers her self-portraits as some of her most objective works. Perhaps this hyperawareness of self encourages her to pay closer attention to her body and being at a more molecular level, examining details piece by piece and frame by frame in the way a scientist might. In Space Between (2012), for example, we see a ghostly face obscured by heavy shadow: Gale’s. And yet, it’s not. It is one aspect of an immeasurable whole, one possible visual expression of an overpowering feeling, a sliver of the artist that faintly impresses upon her portraits of Robert, Rachel, and others. It is that ineffable and yet enduringly influential space between.
Born in 1966, Ann Gale earned her BFA from Rhode Island College and her MFA from Yale University. In addition to exhibiting across North America, Gale has been the recipient of numerous awards, including a Guggenheim fellowship in 2007, a Washington Arts Council fellowship in 2006, and a National Endowment for the Arts fellowship in 1996, among others. Her work was included in the 2011 Dolby Chadwick Gallery exhibition, HEADS, curated by Peter Selz. Gale is currently Associate Professor of Fine Arts at the University of Washington, Seattle.