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Water portraits

What Jessica Gandolf chooses to show
By KEN GREENLEAF  |  September 10, 2008
“BUBBLING WELL” Oil on paper, 7x10.5”, by Jessica Gandolf, 2008.

“Jessica Gandolf: Calming The Ocean” at Aucocisco Galleries, 613 Congress St, Portland | through September 27 | 207.775.2222
Despite their small size, Jessica Gandolf’s paintings have always had a large-scale operatic background informing their imagery. For years her paintings, mostly less than a foot square, have depicted figures from the history of sports, especially baseball and boxing. She might present, say, a portrait of the legendary Yankees manager Casey Stengel as a young player, or Yogi Berra in that funny pose he affected in his catcher’s gear for photographs.

The subjects were iconic, like Jake LaMotta or Jamie Foxx, and well known mostly to aficionados of sport and its history. Baseball and boxing share with grand opera the conjunction of overwrought passion based in a familiar structure. Everybody knows the rules, but the details of the drama change with every encounter.

These new paintings at Aucocisco take her work in a different direction. There are hints of a hermetic body of knowledge and passionate events, but the background has shifted toward a different cultural embedment, more Mahabharata than the American League before the designated hitter. Her quirky sense of picking out bits and pieces of some larger system of thought and assembling them into a personal iconography is still much in evidence.

Gandolf teaches yoga and derives many of the images and settings for her paintings from this tradition. In “Calming the Ocean,” a nude baby in a bathtub fills the foreground, and the tub appears to be floating on the ocean that fills the rest of the small picture. “Calming the Ocean” is the translation of abhaya mudra, the name of a gesture of holding up two hands, palms outward. The iconography and title are direct references to Gandolf’s themes of stilling the spirit, of innocence, of the presence of unseen forces and danger.

The oddness of the image brings the picture back from the edge of allegory, as does its size. Babies do sit in bathwater, but tiny bathtubs are rarely seen floating on the sea. The painting measures seven by six-and-a-half inches, making it not only an object small enough to be possessed but also to be an unobtrusive sector of the visible landscape. Her ideas are presented as small reminders to the viewer, not exhortations.

Babies and tubs show up in several paintings. In “Rock a Bye Moon” the tub is more of a pot, and the baby looks distinctly unhealthy. The pot floats on the ocean beneath a lurid red sky that bubbles to near-white at the top. “Nursery Crossing” has three tubs afloat, two of which have babies that gaze pensively at the viewer, the third tub conspicuously empty. In “Sink” a baby looks at two running faucets while floating under a yellow sky. There’s an almost diagrammatic imagery here, a feeling that Gandolf is pointing at some concrete meaning that is just out of reach, something specific but hard to get a grip on.

Gandolf lets the many symbolic uses of water stack up with each other, sometimes with poetic ambiguity and other times with almost documentary directness. One painting, “Bayou Baptism,” depicts a young man breaking the surface with an ornate silver cross in his hand, while other swimming young men crowd around him. The picture recounts the Epiphany practice in the South, where a cross is thrown into the water and diving young men compete to find it and bring it up. Gandolf shows just the group of swimmers at the moment the cross is brought up, recounting nothing else about the act’s cultural or physical surroundings.

There’s an implied narrative with all of these paintings, as there is in Gandolf’s sports paintings, but the viewer has to supply it. There’s an action, an idea, an image, but nothing else. Gandolf’s method is to expect her viewers to supply their own context, and that is what makes these dandy little pictures distinctive.

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Ken Greenleaf can be reached

  Topics: Museum And Gallery , Painting , Visual Arts , Ken Greenleaf ,  More more >
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