This is not a “self-portrait,” it is a portrait of the artist, Ginnie Gardiner. The looking glass is painting itself.
There is no camera obscura, no ‘mirror,’ or documentation of an artist’s encounter with their own reflection, and fixation over their own features. Or, that process shared with the viewer in that intimate frisson of coming to grips with the artist gazing upon their own reflection, and sharing their self-consciousness with the observer of that event.
This is a painting about the primary act of painting and seeing, and what the artist can keep to themselves, and yet share in plain sight. It is a manifestation of the act of painting itself.
Painting is arguably the most directly visual of mediums deriving from the drive to express objects in space that convey meaning at least to their creator and to varying degrees their audience.
In this regard, Strata, is a highly visual endeavor. What it has to
convey requires only observing the information contained within the canvas itself, and does not require familiarity with metaphysically charged symbols, arcania, or reliquary and alchemical narrative coded references.
What the viewer is looking at contains within itself all the clues to understanding the painting and responding to its sensibility and logic. At the same time, the painting’s subject, being the artist, and the act of painting, falls within a broad swatch of an established art historical genre, to wit, the “self-portrait.” But, Strata deviates from the conventions that have historically defined that genre. This is directly encountered by considering what this tableau shows the viewer and what it does not.
Strata also falls outside of the traditional genre painting and pictorial narrative. It is not the card trick of George de La Tour’s, The Cheat, we are not being shown information being denied the mark within the painting’s staging. It is not a Shakespearian ‘aside.’ There are no sidelong gazes of the shill, or shifty confiding contact with the unseen viewer from the cheat. Contemplating Strata, the viewer is standing within the space of the painting, even though they are standing outside of it, because that is essentially and exactly the space that the painting’s structure evokes. They are not an audience being exposed to confidence play, the brag or braggadocio of “the Cheat,” their role is observer not voyeur.
This is a painting whose subject is hiding in plain sight. Its mysteries are as direct as a card trick where the cards are all presented to the audience, but the cues are unfamiliar because we have been conditioned by the formalities and narratives, not only of drawing and painting, but, photography, film and even the unavoidable selfie, that take place on an assembly line, in front of Guernica, the Mona Lisa, Jackson Pollock’s Lucifer, or any icon riding the walls of ‘destination-worthy’ art museums in cities most of us can no longer afford to reside within. The “trick” of Strata is that there is no ‘trick’ being played beyond the act of painting itself.
There is a long tradition formed by artists using the most compliant and available model – themselves, which is a sub-genre, within the genre of portrait painting. This notion can be observed in Rembrandt donning his studio props as readily as his other models for portraiture play acting their role in society. It is a notion post-modernly carried forward in Cindy Sherman generating a New York School career out of the endless extrapolation and exploitation of this notion. Similarly, it can be discerned in the omnipresent chimera of Andy Warhol’s Pop chimera of self-portraits and piss paintings in homage to the impulses and clichés that derived from the fount of Abstract Expressionists – Jackson Pollack. But, that is not the object of Strata’s attention.
The psychological focus dangled by providing the gaze of discernable facial features, which are the perceptual centerpiece and fulcrum of most portraiture, is unselfconsciously denied. It is displaced by the painter’s focus downward to the paint being laid on the palette. All the viewer can discern is the spill of blond hair. It is this which veils the features and provides the cover of semi-anonymity. There is not a hint of intention that this is flirtation, or the shy flirtation of the averted gaze. It is the product of concentration. The viewer is simply not the focus of this painting’s intent. Yet, the viewer is the one coming upon the painting in the detached mode of observer, left to make sense of the tableau they find themselves coming upon and standing outside of. And in this sense they are made the object if not the subject of its intent.
The gaze of the central figure of this painting is a woman, the artist, who is lithe of body and concentrated in her poise, but removed from the viewer. There is no locked-gaze with the viewer. There is no “Travis Bickel” confrontational moment of “you looking at me?” The concentration is upon a mysterious caliper- like tool that is expressing a white squeezed line of lead white in the shape of a question mark from what we smartly can assume to be a paint tube, interpolating this from all the other paint tubes lying recumbent in the composition.
In fact, the largest plane of activity in this painting’s composition consists of paint tubes distributed on the white of the palette, like bathers on a sandy beach, lying diagonally before us from the bottom of the picture plane to roughly it’s three-quarters horizon line that is on the same arc as the painter’s right hand that holds the tube being squeezed by calipers or canvas stretchers. This is the wheelhouse of the painting’s energy and fruition as well as a major point of concentration. It is here that the gaze of the artist is focused, or so we must assume from the turn of her head and angle of its tilt, for her facial features are not visible to us. We can only imagine this particularity, and therefore are left to project and identify.
The special organization of this work is in three strata, which are cubist in their juxtaposition, and medieval in their hierarchy, while also encompassing the span of the studio ground. The palette is built from subtle distinctions and modulations of blues and greys, earthen siennas and dashes of cadmiums, cobalts and exotic colors represented by the swatches identifying the contents of the tubes within. The bright hues are relegated to a minor apparent role, but hinted at as part of the formidable arsenal of visual vocabulary being brought to bear in the evocation of this image, and informing subtleties of the modulations of luminous grays before us.
The artist’s entire focus is upon these tubes, particularly the one that her arms and white gloves direct our gaze to, and thus we are drawn into exploring them as well. The artist’s body and arms form an unambiguous triangle in the shape of the letter “A” and this phenomenon is repeated by the motif of saw horses and stools that line the studio floor behind her in support of another table on which ride books and perhaps drawings and other works of art. It is from these, derives the paintings and the books or prints riding on the tables behind them.
If we are so inclined we can infer the semaphore and symbol of the letter “A,” we can even think, “Ah-ha,” ‘A’ is for ‘artist.’” But, this is left a passing notion, and is not strenuously pursued to a proven conclusion by referential arcane symbols or direct symbolism buried within a Vermeer-like tableau. They are instead off-handed, intuitively conveyed accidents formed by the engagement of the actions within the picture itself.
The other element of “support” that is provided within the plane of the painting’s compositional confines is the depiction of a truncated second figure cut off below the waist in the upper right hand corner of the composition.
Three different spatial discernable areas can be identified in Strata: there is the dominant blocky expanse of white palette and tubes in the foreground juxtaposed to the haptic and taut figure of the artist in black on a black chair; the floating horizontal planes at the top of the picture plane; and the ‘waterfall’ of light and cascading blues entering the painting at the upper right, like a door opening into a room being naturally lit by the light coming from some outside natural source.
I am in a unique position to speak of this painting as a part of it, for I am the muse, present within the painting, with my legs sprouting like pair of wings or trunks cut off at my waist at the upper right of the painting’s composition, rendered in the broken fluidity of the horizontal folds of my baggy jeans. The muse too is present, but not readily apparent to the viewer so much as inferred from the truncated form.
The “muse” is shown in background and literally entering the picture plane, while not intruding upon it. Legs provide the support to the body and the muse provides support to the artist. That, at least, is one inference that can be drawn. The legs are behind the visible figure. They support (figuratively speaking) the top plane of the canvas, like two sticks propping up a window. The muse ‘has the artist’s back’ in colloquial terms. Without needing to resort to narrative, this is a painting that simply reveals by placement and composition.
In pure abstract terms of the “massing” in Strata, the three spatial zones that comprise the dynamics of the painting’s composition also distinguish themselves by their graphic tonal distribution.
The dominant space of palette in subtle mixtures of dominant cool tones of bluish light grays mitigated with trace elements of red and earth and accents of pure hues in notes and highlights of lead white, or bright titanium white, is overall the lightest among the zones. It emerges first from the murk of darkness, if this painting is contemplated in a naturally lit room that slowly transitions from darkness to be fully illuminated by the morning light.
The blacks of the painting, which are opposed to this lightest zone, consist of the artist and the chair on which she’s seated. Blacks or dark brown earth tones standing in for interior darkness and space in Dutch painting and Baroque usually provide the ground, here take their place in their Modernist role as the garb of the artist.
Behind them in the upper right corner, the mid-tones of the painting are broken by blocky brushwork that define the discernable element of blue-jean-clad legs against a sun dappled background. And the darkest element consists of the formal horizontal planes that hold the horizon down in service of the painting’s focus. By this device, the perspective of the viewer of this painting is approaching from above the artist, as if occupying the same standing perspective as the muse approaching from behind.
By the abstract organization of space in Strata, the viewer is left in the uncertain position of deciding whether they are a guest, a subject or model that the artist might be painting, or an unwanted intruder into the privacy of the artist’s contemplation. Compositionally, the painter sits at the center of this space. The canvas or painting they are working on is outside the space. It is inferred that this canvas is where the viewer stands looking in at the artist painting. It is the canvas that is the mute looking glass – the camera and the audience- as well as the subject, in one.
There is a fourth possibility, of course, that might also occur to the viewer. That is that it is the viewer who is in the privileged position of being the artist, floating outside the painting observing, in the disembodied modality that mediation and dreaming often produces. In this sense the disembodiment and detached consciousness of the artist is conveyed as part of the compelling fascination and compulsion to paint and communicate by purely visual means with all the expansive multiplicity and subtlety of its potential for conveying complex yet elemental truths.
Strata, 2013, Oil on Canvas, 48 x 48 inches