By Paul Gessell
Ottawa artist Kristy Gordon paints portraits that literally stop you in your tracks. Sometimes because of the props she uses to help create a character. Sometimes it is just the unusual look on the subject’s face. Gordon has a solo show running at Cube Gallery from April 24 until May 20. (An online catalogue of the exhibition is available on www.cubegallery.ca.) Be prepared to meet some fascinating people, including some ghostly ones. The Artful Blogger caught up with Gordon in New York City for an email interview.
First of all, what are you doing in New York?
I am attending the Master’s program at the New York Academy of Art. It blends traditional technical training with contemporary discourse on art. There are weekend master classes taught by many of my favourite painters, such as Vincent Desiderio and Jenny Saville. Also, being situated in New York gives me the opportunity to visit the exceptional museums here as well as the art shows in Chelsea and other galleries around Manhattan.
You are perhaps best known for very representational, albeit unusual, portraits. What draws you to this genre?
I gravitate towards representational painting because I’m interested in textures, detail and description. I want to create another reality within my paintings and the language of representational painting is the way that I do that. There are so many artists from the past that inspire me and I find myself gaining inspiration from them and using it to express the contemporary experience of my life. I am drawn to portraits because people are a mystery to me and fascinate me. There is so much that we hide from each other in day to day life. When I’m painting a person from life it gives me an excuse to look deeply at them. The subtle muscle movements of the face reveal so much. I often identify something in another person that I sense in myself, and feel very connected to them, and similar to them. This is frequently what I try to convey in the portrait.
What preparations are involved before actually painting a portrait? Do you photograph the subject? Have long conversations with the person?
In an ideal situation I have the opportunity to paint “from life,” without the use of photography. I either have a person pose for me, or else paint myself by looking in a mirror. This gives me the chance to connect with and observe the person at a deeper level. It also allows me to perceive colour and form more accurately than I can when photography is relied on too heavily. It is not always possible to work from life, but I have found that all my experience at working from life informs any work I do that utilizes photographic reference. I usually begin with simple “thumbnails” (or rough sketches) and then do a more developed drawing before beginning the final painting.
What, for you, makes a successful portrait?
Well, for me, since I am totally obsessed with technique, the first thing that comes to mind is a pleasing visual language. I just love well-painted portraits. I could stare at them forever.
The art world, including art schools, can be unkind at times to representational painters. Have you felt pressured to move into a different style of painting?
I have felt some pressure from previous art schools and the art world. However, I have also witnessed a movement back to representational figurative painting since I began my full-time pursuit of painting. I have been especially excited to witness the increasing number of contemporary New York galleries that showcase representational figurative art. I remember when I first visited New York around 2005 and explored the Chelsea art galleries it all seemed to be exhibitions of nylon stockings stretched over cement blocks and stuff like that. It’s really exciting to see the increasing interest in representational figurative painting!
What are your plans once your studies in New York are over?
I never know exactly where my life will lead me, but I do have some ideas about things I might like to do next, but I will know the right path as things unfold. Some of these ideas include continuing to live in New York, returning to live in Florence, Italy, or even moving back to the mountains of British Columbia where I grew up. They all sound like wonderful possibilities to me, so I pretty much can’t go wrong. The cool thing about my life as an artist is that I can pretty much work from anywhere, so it gives me tremendous freedom to listen to my heart and see what it is telling me to do next.
The vernissage for Kristy Gordon’s exhibition at Cube will be held April 29 from 2 p.m. to 5 p.m.