With a self-portrait, you think you know what you’re getting — the face of the artist. Well, yes and no. You get the version the artist wants you to see, and the story the artist wants to tell. In that vein, Gaela Erwin doesn’t paint self-portraits — she paints stories.
Erwin has said in the past that, “Self-portraits are a recurrent theme in my work. This motif allows me the luxury of working from life, without the worry of mounting model bills, and the ease of working whenever and however long I feel, without scheduling conflicts. Self-portraits also afford the possibilities not only of mirroring my own physical characteristics and psychology, but, if the painting is truly successful, also a glimpse of the interior landscape of the viewer’s own psyche.”
Her latest exhibition is “Gaela Erwin: Reframing the Past” at the Speed Art Museum (its sister show, “Gaela Erwin: Mother” at UofL’s Cressman Center for Visual Arts, just closed). It’s small, with 11 works on display, of which eight are by Erwin. The other three are positioned to round out the tales being told. All of the art, including the ones from the Speed’s permanent collection, are done in pastel.
Pastels are highly pigmented sticks; an image created with them can be labeled either a drawing or painting. Pastel painting is the term favored by artists, if the entire surface is covered with pastel. That’s what Erwin prefers.
Erwin was commissioned by the Speed Art Museum to create pastel paintings based on works they had in their permanent collection. She was up to the task. “I borrow from the great portraitists of the past to first seduce and then challenge contemporary viewers to catch a glimpse of their own anxieties mirrored in my work,” she said.
Her highly-realistic technique is well served by the 18th-century works her pastels are based on. Visitors might even mistake a few of her 2016 pieces for centuries-older paintings. While some have a contemporary detail that tells you the time period right away, others do not.
Jean-Baptiste Perronneau’s “Portrait of Charles-Nicolas Cochin II,” from around 1759, is shown alongside Erwin’s “Self Portrait after Perronneau.” Cochin was an engraver and art critic who is shown holding a pen. Erwin presents herself as gender neutral griping a sketchbook and pastel stick. Both portraits are heightened by the presence of the other.
But we know “Self Portrait as Twins Separated at Birth” is not a long-lost Old Master. Here we see two self-portraits, one contemporary and the other in costume.
The highlight of this excellent exhibition is, surprisingly, not a self-portrait. “Licia and Neema” is a large pastel of two black women dressed in 18th-century, upper-class costume. The superb details, colors and posing immediately reminded me of the 2013 film, “Belle,” about a mixed-race woman raised in aristocratic England in the late 1700s. Since the film itself was inspired by a painting, it’s only fitting that this work brings it back full circle. Mix in a little of Kehinde Wiley’s portraits of black people re-envisioned in famous paintings, and the result is an imagined dual portrait of important, powerful women of color.
Erwin will give a free gallery talk Thursday, Aug. 25 from 5:30-7 p.m. at the Speed Art Museum (use the South Building Cinema entrance).