Gaela Erwin: My Mother, My Sister, Myself

Lexington Art League
January 12 – March 3, 2013

by Sheldon Tapley

Know Yourself: An ancient maxim. We find it hard to understand, difficult to pursue, and perhaps impossible to fulfill. Philosophers have discussed the imperative for centuries. Socrates gave primacy to self-knowledge. Seeking it properly takes courage, discipline and persistence. For a painter, it can provide a motive, simple and deep.

Gaela Erwin has made self-examination the basis of her art. She is known as a master painter and a chameleonic self-portraitist. In her most recent work, she looks not just into the studio mirror, but into her family, seeing herself reflected in shared likenesses, and shared natures. This exhibition brings together nine pastel paintings in which the artist examines herself, her sister and her mother, taking each subject individually and then, in various combinations, united. It is an impressive group of pictures, which could have been even larger, for this is only a selection from a long series of works exploring the theme. We see a formidable artist at the peak of her powers, producing works of great beauty and force.

While I was at the exhibition, the brightening light of a late afternoon in winter filled the high-ceilinged, elegant old room that is now a gallery, revealing more powerfully the painter’s lively palette, which makes her figures shine out against bold black fields.  That enveloping blackness is borrowed: brought back from Italy, where Erwin went last year to study the paintings of Caravaggio.  His use of light to cut through darkness, to reveal characters with dramatic power, as if they had been suddenly exposed to our scrutiny, was one of the gifts he left to succeeding generations of painters. Gaela Irwin has done much with it.

In Self-Portrait with Afternoon Light, the artist faces full front, looking directly into the mirror, and thus directly at us, her head and shoulders illuminated against a black field by a slanting beam of sunlight which makes her squint slightly.  Solitude is evoked by the simplicity of her self-presentation. Dressed comfortably in a pale violet sweater, she has put on bright red lipstick, but no other makeup: a small effort at self-presentation, signifying self-consciousness, but not the full assumption of a public face. That, along with the static symmetry of the pose, tells us she is staying in, staying still, observing, and meditating on whatever is revealed in that harsh and narrow light. This is work. The difficulty of self-knowledge is seen in the artist’s melancholy and earnest gaze; the limits of it by the shadow edges crossing her head and chest. Almost everything else remains in darkness: the task of self-illumination is incomplete. So is the picture. A couple of inches of untrimmed, smudged white paper are visible at the bottom of the pastel, where we see the ragged edge of her marks. At any given moment, we are simultaneously complete and unfinished, illuminated and obscured.

Erwin, Gaela – Self-Portrait with Afternoon Light

The self-portrait, though not a large picture, seems monumental. The life-size figure of the artist is so close to the picture plane that she dominates the shallow space between herself and us, increasing the intensity of the experience. Two portraits of the artist’s sister are slightly less than life scale, and correspondingly milder. In them, Erwin has slightly distanced her sibling and enveloped her in atmosphere, allowing her to look away or upward, so that we don’t meet her gaze directly. In My Sister Looking Right, the background is tentatively shaped into an oval, a decorative format popularized in the eighteenth century (a period of portraiture dear to Erwin). But the oval is incomplete and not centered on the page—as if it was a lightly considered idea, abandoned without certainty: a history of indecision both vigorous and delicate. The lines of her sister’s garment are drawn with graceful economy onto the shape of the unfinished shoulders. They are the simple roots of mastery in drawing that underlie those layers of color which might have followed, which elsewhere in the pastel have developed a magical complexity, producing the likeness of a woman who turns from us. All the thoughtful wavering by the artist disappears there, in her sister’s face, which is captured in a decisive moment, the lips gently pursed, the eyes turned, suggesting a reaction to something we do not see. The eyes are described with an amazingly gentle touch. Her face is mostly in shadow, but not obscured. Rather, it is enlivened, rosier than the blinding light that rims her head. The artist sees and knows her sister, even through shadow. The boldest element is the brilliant glow of her yellow hair and the lovely softness of its edge against the darkness—a touch that is sentimental in the best possible way. The contrasts in this work make it seem both spontaneous and permanent, as if the artist recognized the instant when all was in balance and dared not touch again.

Erwin, Gaela – My Sister Looking to the Right

Identity is something we conveniently regard as permanent and constant. I am always me, and always will be, or so I like to think. But the suspicion of inconstant selfhood nags at our complacency: Am I different now? Has she changed? These familiar doubts prompt the search for self-knowledge and understanding of others. The insights gained in that search are precious, but hard to hold on to, so easily confounded by a person’s changing roles. In My Sister Looking Upward, she is covered in a diaphanous wrap, and lit from above, so that she seems a little like a costumed actor under a spotlight. This is a continuing theme for Erwin. In earlier paintings, she adapted her own self-image over and over through costume, makeup, and the inhabiting of historic themes, such as the martyrdom of saints. In those works Erwin was overtly playing with assumed roles. There is a difference here. The theatricality is more subtle, used to frame her subject, not to change her. But it is done with the consciousness that alteration—that is, interpretation—is inevitable, as soon as the artist conceives of her subject, even before the chalk is put to the paper, before the light is turned on in the studio. The changing self has always been present in Erwin’s art, but now she shows us the self’s changing perception of others. The artist asks: How might I paint my sister? We don’t just see the answer; we are allowed to hear the question.

The artist’s sister looks upward. In the religious art of the past, the upturned gaze represented contemplation of Heaven. Even without belief in an afterlife, the pose has power, evoking the helplessness of the individual, small in contrast to the vastness of the heavens. The protective wrap, and the quiet pose—her arms are hidden since there is no use for action, no possible defense—show us a mortal woman. Erwin depicts the self-consciousness we all carry: the feeling of playing a role, even though our story is tragically real, inflects everything, perhaps especially in the absence of faith. Her sister’s experience and emotion is real, yet also acted, directed, and recorded: the artistic act.  We are shown this, but it does not make the image inauthentic, as if the painter was merely playing aesthetic games. She shows us the woman and the role; the pain of being and of knowing being.  That double consciousness is visible throughout the paintings in this show.

Maintaining a sense of continuing and constant identity while changing roles throughout our life (or sometimes, throughout the day) requires effort and psychic agility, even when we don’t know we are doing it. Understanding others from our own slippery vantage point takes yet more effort. But witnessing great alterations of consciousness and identity, such as dementia, requires more than nimble understanding. Catastrophic change like that can stop us in our tracks. At the very least, it is occasion for somber reflection. Mother and Child Reunion, a truly monumental pastel, makes that vivid. This work, one of the largest in the gallery, shows the artist and her mother from above, as they lay together on a bed. Erwin’s figure is inverted, so that she descends into the frame from the top edge, while her mother echoes our stance: head above, feet below.  A diagonal band of light rakes across their heads. Mother’s eyes are closed, as her daughter watches. The purple housecoat Mother wears is worn in a strangely confining manner, pulled down across her chest, so that it becomes more like a shroud than a garment, uniting her arms to her torso. Her posture is quiet.  In contrast, Erwin’s left arm is akimbo, thrown back beyond her head—a more active pose, but equally helpless. The artist’s hand, a symbol of human activity if ever there was one, hangs between the bodies, isolated and limply closed.

Erwin, Gaela – Mother and Child Reunion

The dramatic invention in this picture, of two people in such an unbelievably enormous bed, is both obvious its simplicity and yet not intrusive—not in the sense that it makes us disbelieve the moment or the feeling of the work. Spatial logic is less important here than emotional experience. At one point in the construction of the picture, Erwin had her own figure posed more conventionally, parallel to her mother, head up, feet below, her extended hand tentatively active, bent back before touching. The space was more believable then, but the artist wasn’t satisfied with the feeling of the work. In the final state, mother and daughter have become complements, much like the two figures of a queen on a playing card. The picture is so well constructed, it could be inverted and remain what it is: a durable, dynamic image of love and loss.

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