by DeWitt Cheng

Ann Gale | Self-Portrait With Orange Shirt, 2007, | Oil on linen on masonite | 14 x 11 inches

The portrait might seem to have been done to death over the past five hundred years, since the idea of commemorating individual physiognomies took hold in bourgeois Europe, having flourished earlier in Egyptian funerary portraits and Roman Republic busts. Seattle painter Anne Gale, however, continues to find new challenge and meaning within the form, scrutinizing the models and friends that she’s painted before with her analytic, painterly, yet empathetic eye.

While the figures are accurately conjured up in her dappled canvases, this is achieved despite an almost complete absence of drawing or line: Gale sees her subjects in color patches, as Manet and the Impressionists did, and her work is an accretion of tiny and large touches of extremely well-observed color, unblended and unmodulated, which modify each other and mix in the viewer’s eye-brain to create the illusion of modeling and form, space and light; it’s akin to the persistence-of-vision phenomenon that creates motion in movies. Consequently, instead of the colored divisionist mist we might expect, given Gale’s methodology, we encounter sitting figures of great specificity and monumentality. The paintings are Cézannian in that respect, with the difference that Gale’s subjects are personified individuals, rather than Cézanne’s merely brilliant studies in form. Quietly, soberly, and perhaps warily, they endure the artist’s scrutiny — even when Gale paints herself.

These are smart and beautiful (though in an untraditional sense) paintings; emerging from a complete engagement with observation and depiction, they carry the painted portrait tradition undimmed by time and impervious to the occasional absurd theorizing of the art academe into the third millennium. A nicely illustrated booklet featuring a perceptive essay by San Francisco Art Institute’s Mark Van Proyen is available. —DeWitt Cheng

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