by Larry Groff
I am honored that Ann Gale agreed to this telephone interview and thank her greatly for being so generous with her time and attention with sharing thoughts about her art and process.
Ann Gale is a leading American figurative painter living in Seattle. Her portraits were shown alongside other leading painters of the figure such as Lucian Freud, Nathan Oliveira and Alex Kanevsky in the 2011 exhibition “HEADS” curated by Peter Selz at her San Francisco Dolby Chadwick Gallery.
The JSS in Civita, (Civita Castellana, Italy) recently announced that Ann Gale will be the 2015 JSS in Civita Master Class Guest-of–Honor. Ms. Gale will be in residence July 13th to August 3th. Here is a link for more information on her workshop in Italy.
In a January 2013 review for Visual Art Source DeWitt Cheng wrote:
“…Gale’s paintings, which require months and even years to complete, are aggregations of thousands of brushstrokes (Cézanne’s colored oil-paint patches and Giacometti’s feathery, tremulous graphite contours come to mind) that alternate, depending on the viewer’s distance, angle of view and degree of focus, between heavily textured natural surfaces (bark, lichen) and sharply observed studies of atmosphere and anatomy. Look very closely, and a myriad of tiny abstractions spring into view, with every square inch graphically charged with energy.”
Another review in Art ltd. magazine by Richard Speer writes:
“…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.”
…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.”
Her many prestigious accomplishments include a 2007 solo exhibition at the Portland Art Museum as well as the Falk Art Museum at the University of North Carolina in 2009. Gale received a Guggenheim fellowship in 2007 and a Washington Arts Council fellowship in 2006. Gale is currently Full Professor of Fine Arts at the University of Washington, Seattle and is represented by Dolby Chadwick Gallery in San Francisco where her solo exhibition in 2012 has a catalog which can be obtained from the gallery website. Ms. Gale is also represented by Prographica Gallery in Seattle and have a January exhibition at Steven Harvey Fine Art Projects in NY.
Larry Groff: Can you tell us a little about your early years and what influenced you to become a painter? I understand your mother was an artist. What was art school like for you?
Ann Gale: My mother is still painting, in fact I’ll call her today to see if she’s painting. Obviously that was very much an influence and support for me. It still is, it’s nice to have somebody to call me and ask “did you paint today?”
LG: What kind of painting does your mother make?
AG: She does watercolor landscapes. She worked in oils when I was young and I was allowed to draw all the time. If I was drawing I didn’t have to do my chores, which was excellent! I think it still works like that for me a little.
In school, I was fortunate to have art teachers that gave me instruction and time to work in school. They challenged me with different ideas to improve and go beyond what I was doing, even in grade school and middle school. I went to undergraduate school at Rhode Island College and I had great professors Sam Ames, a figurative painter, and Don Smith, an abstract painter. They had a way of teaching me to pay attention to a painting. I found undergraduate school very humbling. I began school thinking that I knew how to draw and soon realized I had a great deal to learn. I was so happy to get into Yale/Norfolk summer program. There, I was exposed to a very diverse group of students and faculty that opened up my idea of what painting could be, what the language was like. I felt kind of untethered. I didn’t know what to do there.
LG: At Norfolk did you ever feel that there was a stigma or less support towards work done from observation or did that not seem to matter?
AG: No. Working from observation wasn’t stigmatized, but I also don’t think it had any authority. It was interesting to see the kinds of leveling of everything.
Graduate school was kind of similar, only bigger, more intense. William Bailey, Andrew Forge and Bernie Chaet were at Yale then. We talked more about painting than figuration. It really gave me a vocabulary for that discussion in my own studio practice – considering what I valued in the painting, not just in the picture. Andrew Forge once asked us to define our assumptions in painting. This is something I continue to think about.
LG: I’ve heard the critiques at Yale could often be very pointed, even brutal sometimes. Did you find that experience?
AG: Yes, I sometimes felt vulnerable and exposed. Often the critiques were difficult because they were saying something I was trying not to say to myself.
LG: What have been some of your most important influences that shaped how you paint today?
AG: I am very curious and sometimes obsessive about observation. It is very intense to just be close to somebody and to be looking at their face and down at their lap and being aware of their gravity and proximity. I have been influenced by painters who reveal the intense experience of observation in their work. One of the artists that I found and studied when I was an undergraduate, was Antonio Lopez Garcia. We went down to New York for his show.
LG: That was his earlier show in NYC in 1986 at his Marlborough Fine Art gallery.
AG: Right, I remember standing next to my teacher and him slapping me on the back, saying “breathe, you’re not breathing!” I had seen paintings that were accurate like photo-realism or work that was powerful, like Italian Baroque painting, but I hadn’t felt this before. I couldn’t forget it and it was intriguing that painting could do that. That it could pull me into it’s world. It had a very human sensation to it. I always wondered what is it that isn’t just information—he seems to have transcended that. I remember when that big catalog came out. I ordered it and sat on my doorstep every day waiting for the mailman, waiting for it to arrive.
LG: That’s an amazing book, The Rizzoli Catalog, it’s probably my favorite and most used artbook. Did you get to see his big show at the Boston MFA?
AG: No, I didn’t get to see the show in Boston. That was horrible to miss that show.
As an undergraduate my teachers showed me Edwin Dickinson’s work, which I found incredibly mysterious and intimate. I also found a little black and white catalog that included British figurative paintings. These painters weren’t as well known at the time, William Coldstream, Lucian Freud, Patrick George, Uglow, Kossoff… I was interested in how the process of perception was present in the work. It was almost like they were mapping their sensation. It reminded me of Giacometti. I became obsessed over that little group of paintings. And then when I was at Norfolk we went to visit the British Museum and I was taken by the back of the collar by one of the teachers and made to sit in front of Kossoff and the Auerbach – saying I should not leave until I sat there. I had seen these pieces in reproduction but it was important to see the touch and the way they seemingly transform, revealing the fleshiness of the paint. That doesn’t reproduce very well, that feeling that I really like about painting. To understand some things about a painting I needed to sit in front of it for some time. So those groups of representational paintings especially, really interested me in school and since.
LG: Is your painting dependent on the model being in front of you in the exact same position? How critical is working directly from life in your work in terms of trying to the sitter’s exact likeness, proportions, skin-tones and such?
AG: I’ve been thinking about this a lot recently. I think it has been changing in my work, how I think about it. I’m used to the tradition of working with the model, where I mark the model and the model tries to sit still in the same place. My studio used to look like a dance studio because I marked my feet where I was standing. It looked like these little shoe-prints everywhere. If I moved a couple of feet closer I would re-mark how everything would change relative to where I was standing. Recently I’ve had a couple of paintings and drawings where the model changed and I followed the change in my painting. I usually have the model in 3 hour sessions and about 2 hours into the session, the model looks different, they give up to gravity, they’re thinking about something else now. My attention seems clearer. There is something more honest in it. So I found myself following that adjustment a lot in my work. Even my own place, I would move in or out and that would change things in the painting. In a technical way, it can make a big muddy mess but it can keep it open. I had to reexamine these same proportions repeatedly. It wasn’t just measuring precision but the idea of re-measuring and re-finding something has become more interesting to me now. Also many of these paintings, the larger ones especially, have gone on for a very long time and sometimes people change. They have gotten ill or they’ve gotten well, their life circumstances have changed. It’s not something I want to ignore; it’s something I want to watch. It’s more truthful; things are constantly changing. When I’m willing to give up what I have, what I see in the painting feels more conscious, more alive.
LG: I remember once reading a quote from Edwin Dickinson, I think, that I something like “a painter should always be paying the model and not the other way around.”
AG: That is probably very good advice.
LG: I’m curious to hear more about your measuring and searching. Would you say measuring helps to free up the painting process; that searching for truth through measuring helps turn off the inclination to paint preconceived notions and helps to keep the painting open?
AG: Yes, The search becomes part of the subject of the painting. The figure is so familiar, it is challenging to see past prejudged ideals of the body and face. Measuring can provide an objective lens for perception.
LG: I find that so fascinating because it seems so counterintuitive that the more you search for accurate mark or tone could be more liberating than with loose, bravura-style brush work. That the actual observation and exactitude doesn’t have to be constraining, like with painters like Euan Uglow with his obsessive measuring, with all his little position marks on the wall.
AG: I was able to see a less finished piece by Uglow a long time ago. It was of back-to-back women, it wasn’t a large painting. It looked like a little study with a very limited palette. I like how he was using that limitation to really ask a precise question about relative measuring.
LG: Your work seems different though, as if the measurement is on a whole other level. It’s not just about measuring; it goes beyond that in a way. Would you say that is true?
AG: There are different kinds of measuring. I have a broad definition of measuring. You used the term that it could be liberating. I think it is, it’s incredibly liberating if I let it take me somewhere. I think I was really struggling with color within figure/ground relationships. I then changed the way I was observing and measuring color. Instead of trying to achieve some correctness about the background or the part of the body, I tried to be accurate the light and how the color could find the light. I had to keep standing back and asking, “is that the color relationship or not?”—so it’s half-measuring and half-feeling because light is very much a sensation, much harder to measure in an objective way.