Sunday, July 12, 2015

Linda Gall's "Old Wood & Ancient Haunts"

Linda Gall, Loose Wires, watercolor, 6 x 9," 2014. Courtesy
of Hammond Harkins Gallery
Linda Gall's watercolors showing at the Hammond Harkin Gallery in Bexley, Ohio can be described only by their own, eccentric presences. Old Wood & Ancient Haunts? I accede to her title because the show is decidedly narrative and so it deserves to be called something. But the narrative is up to you, the viewer. There's a lot of time-worn wood featured in it. Ancient haunts? Does that mean the sagging old farm and ranch buildings? I suppose it that's one way to look at it. But there is room to see a multitude of haunts in this work that seduces not only by its beauty, but by its vivid peculiarity.

"Loose Wires" is the simplest piece in this show, but it contains the essence of the fascination her work holds for me. The wires are loose, but they are not disconnected. It appears that the stakes are loose and it is the wires that hold them together. The posts are firmly planted and the pieces of what are probably broken wood between hang loose. (They remind me of clothes pins.) They dangle before/above/beneath…what? In this painting made from observation, there is no setting, no context. Gall shows us what, but "where" is defined only by the blank page. Out of this, she nonetheless convinces of contrasting stability of posts and instability of the web between—as if this were in the Real World. Could be. Maybe not.

As a watercolorist, Gall is self-taught. Perhaps this explains why her command of the medium is so thrilling: Nothing holds her back. Her range is considerable: The colors are a mix of brilliant and saturated with dull; her edges run the gamut from sharpest to wet and dissolving. An exciting  "painting without a net" quality brings every work alive—or, it allows the life of the work to seize you. These truly freehand paintings are done without any pencil plotting or guidelines. The daring delivery of paint adds to the thrill of her odd and ambiguous subjects.

Linda Gall, Troubadours, Watercolor, 17 x 36," 2014. Courtesy of Hammond Harkins Gallery.

Troubadours, above, is quintessential Gall. On an unpainted (empty?) sheet of paper, a utilitarian farm structure in disrepair sits athwart us and a Rococo figurine of a boy and a woman with a guitar faces us directly. The originals for the structures in Gall's work inhabit the landscape around her New Mexico home. They have been observed and we assume that the likenesses are genuine. 

Linda Gall, Annie O. Acrylic on panel, 20" x 24." 2014? Image courtesy
of Hammond Harkins Gallery
As here, Gall has populated many series of work over the years with selections from a wide assortment of china figurines. As a toddler will use any figure at hand, regardless of its look, to represent a character in his or her play fantasy, so these figurines seem to function for Gall. They hold places for imaginations; they represent whomever we want them to be, from whatever period and place we wish. They will stimulate viewers to their own story-making within the setting the painter has begun to make. 

In another essay about this show, I noticed that these represented china pieces were called "tiny figurines," as if they are equivalent to the things from which she modeled them. They are, of course, not tiny at all, unless we agree that the buildings are tiny too. Otherwise, the figures are as large as people in relation to the buildings that we take to be so real. Aren't both real realistically copied? It is up to us to reconcile this and to devise a world from these elements she's posited just as she has against a page with nothing else to refer to. Gall has messed with us, knowing how our expectations of scale will make us see what cannot be and take it to be reality.

The paintings are filled with implied anachronism, impossible placement of global elements, and wildly skewed scale. The pictures can be Toyland or even Christian creche tableaux where the figurines stand not so much for persons as for spiritual figures with significance enhanced by humble architecture. I'm intrigued by the figure in Annie O. with her innocence and Marian blue, waiting for something to happen in that stable...

Linda Gall, Wagon Train, acrylic on panel, 24" x 36." Image courtesy of Hammond Harkins Gallery.
Into these play settings, the hands of children or adults could obtrude from above to place and arrange elements of their choosing to tell the stories they wish. The Christmas story. Gunfight at O.K. Corral. Occupy Dodge City. The Duke and Duchess at University. In Wagon Train, above, it is impossible not to see Gall's toys as the children's wagon train rolls in naive placement across the foot of the painting, drawn by a kitty cat in an engine with a Santa figure waving from the canvas-clad "caboose." The collapsing building itself looks like a train, dragging its worn-out self along on a rusty wheel. The yellow sign warns automobile drivers of falling rocks. Is this the ultimate race with no winner? The foolish side of America's rush to the West and what it has finally done to people and landscape?

Linda Gall, Something of a Pile of Posts, watercolor, 6" x 9." Courtesy of Hammond
Harkins Gallery.
Gall delivers a lot through irony, which is created by juxtapositions. She is a master at the creation of gaps and pits and blanks for us to fall into, but in those places we find the significance of her work. She makes toys; she's a comedienne most of the time, drily delivering commentary on the stories that we will make once she's set us up.

I think this is why I prize so highly these tiny, simple watercolors with very little painted on them. Like Loose Wires at the top, Something of a Pile of Posts is divested of irony, drama, implication—of almost everything but gesture and the emotion that comes with it. A pile of posts. Clods, unfeeling, dumb. But here they have tendency, yearning, and, despite their weathered years, an aspiration or urge to grow. Gall loves narratives, and I guess there is one in a painting like this, but it is a concise one, and it is straight faced. The poignancy isn't disguised by the color and wit.