Everything about the eight oil paintings of Seattle-based Ann Gale included in the Portland Art Museum's new APEX exhibition projects profound melancholy. Her subjects—including the artist herself in a series of three self-portraits—all wear vacant expressions. They occupy stark environments, appearing seated in various states of undress. Their worlds are drab and colorless; Gale's palette never wavers from a range of muted hues, applied in short, blunt strokes. That is, she paints people whose inner heartache has left them disconnected from the physical world. In some ways, Gale seems to be painting shells: the remnants of people who have withdrawn into themselves, retreating from some external horror. Fittingly, her painting style echoes this.
Like Seurat's pointillism, her daubed brushwork relies on viewers' eyes to mix juxtaposed colors and thereby create the images. Also like Seurat's canvases, what seems like realistic representation at a distance dissolves into mottled swatches of dreary tones when a viewer approaches the work. Up close, it seems her subjects are buried beneath a textural overlay of blocks of color and wispy brushstrokes. The background space that surrounds her subjects fades further into abstraction. It's easy to interpret this formal departure as a world that truly has lost its detail and definition. In the face of abject despair, the world around them has simply evaporated into nothingness. It's a compelling link between her style and subjects, which complicates her work and elevates it conceptually above traditional portraiture.
Perhaps the most affecting aspect of Gale's work is the unnerving disparity between the vulnerability of her subjects—both physically and emotionally—and the emotion their faces actually reveal. Instead, body language more often communicates their sorrow. The nude figure in "Gary" translates anxiety through his posture. Seated and entirely exposed, he gropes the arms of his chair and presses his knees together in an unmistakable show of discomfort. The look on his face, though, seems blank and unfeeling. Of course, viewers should not expect their own feelings to remain untouched; Gale's work is emotionally penetrating and gorgeously executed. JOHN MOTLEY