In the 1997 obituary for Willem de Kooning, the New York Times noted an anecdote from the early 1950s: “An often repeated story has it that the critic Clement Greenberg, who championed pure abstraction, insisted that it had become ‘impossible today to paint a face,’ to which Mr. de Kooning replied, ‘’That’s right, and it’s impossible not to.’”
I thought about that as I looked at Samantha Wall’s series of drawings of women’s faces at Laura Russo Gallery. Some 60 years after de Kooning thought it both impossible to paint a face and impossible to avoid painting a face, Wall has found a way to depict faces that is somehow bold, restrained and, most impressively, fresh.
Wall’s drawings, simply graphite on paper, focus almost exclusively on the expressive parts of the head: the eyes, nose and mouth. These parts are rendered with exacting detail—down to individual eyelashes—recalling both the neoclassical drawing of Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres and the early grayscale paintings of Chuck Close. The faces are carefully shaded, lightly with little dark shadow—usually just deep darks of the eyes that gaze at us, the viewers. Then there are a few very light linear elements describing the edge of a cheek, or wisps of hair, just enough to make the structure tangible. The marvel to me is that Wall keeps this vignetting of the face from descending into mannered gimmickry.
Wall’s drawings depend on her choices of what to leave out, what little to put in—her judgment of what is and isn’t important. The first choice is a generously sized sheet of paper, two-and-a-half feet tall, that expresses its own elegance given the blank space Wall leaves. The sheet is big enough to get your attention from across the room. Then there is the variety of the placements of the portraits on the paper—high, low, centered, head tilted, straight on. That sets the tone for how we relate to the “person.” In traditional portraiture the face is usually centered about two-thirds of the way up the canvas. Wall’s faces imply movement, that we’ve caught a moment, not a pose (they must have been drawn from photographs that caught these moments). The expanse of white paper allows room for the movement to operate. If the faces were cropped closely we wouldn’t have that important feel of the gesture. The drawing style looks “objective” in its clarity, but these are expressive faces. You wonder about who the person is. They don’t stop at being just “head studies.”
Nowadays, there are a lot of “portrait artists” who make pictures of people, and you know they are “portrait artists” because their work looks just like that we think of when we think “portrait.” They are reworking old styles, and the work feels comfortable because we have nostalgia for a look that’s been copied for hundreds of years. Wall has made a leap out into a new kind of “look”—one that I don’t think can be copied because it depends on a sense of drawing judgment that cannot be taught. I’m reminded of one of my favorite quotes (yeah, I love quotes) from the tennis player Chris Evert: “A coach can teach you how to play the game. You’ve got to teach yourself how to win.”Wall is also showing a series of life-sized standing female figures, drawn with India ink on Dura-Lar drafting film. In contrast to the portraits, the figures have no facial detail. They depend on the capture of the gesture of the pose for their restrained expressiveness. Instead of the tightness of the sharp pencil in the faces, Wall utilizes ink washes that are controlled mainly in their description of big anatomical details: the line of collarbone, the lines of the pelvis, the hints of a kneecap. The ink washes on the plastic film, while controlled in the way we can say Jackson Pollock controlled his gestural drips, are allowed their own character as they run and puddle within the confines of the figure. In a sense the figure is “clothed” in these random washes.
With the faces our sense of presence comes from the gaze and the gestures of the lips. In these large ink drawings we have that sense of shadowy figures confronting us within the doorway-like confines of the sheets. So, again, the choices of scale and placement are fundamental to the power of these works. We can imagine the relief of the artist who has been working so tightly with the pencil drawings to allow a liquid medium to run free, to work broadly. (A quibble: Big sheets of paper, or drafting film, are a pain to present because framing costs a fortune, but I’m just a bit bothered by the Ikea curtain cable and clips presentation of these big pieces. I can’t ignore it. Maybe that’s just me.)
There’s a lot in this show to marvel at. Miles Davis said, “It’s not the notes you play, it’s the notes you don’t play.” Wall knows precisely when enough is enough—in the description of a face, or in corralling running pigment. It all looks so simple, but so elegant.
This has been a good year for Wall. Early this year she received the Arlene Schnitzer Prize at the Portland Art Museum when her work was shown in the Contemporary Northwest Art Awards exhibition. Since then she has been an artist in residence at the Joan Mitchell Center in New Orleans, and she’s received a Golden Spot Residency Award from Crow’s Shadow Institute of the Arts in Pendleton and a Project Grant from Regional Arts and Culture Council.