A Painterly Painter
"By the time i tell you it will all be forgotten" at Inman Gallery has some of Angela Fraleigh's best painting yet. Inman has been showing Fraleigh's work since 2005 when she was still a Core Fellow at the Glassell School, and it's been interesting to see her development. Fraleigh is a painterly painter. She's not into taped edges and flat areas of color; instead, she wallows in the strokes and flow of the paint.
The earliest work I remember of hers had figurative images that vaguely looked like they might have been modeled on romance novel covers. She would then obscure the embracing man and woman, the 18th-century coquette or whatever the subject matter was, with brushy, smeared or poured areas of color. Something always bugged me about Fraleigh's painting style — it was too good to come across as intentionally awkward, but not quite good enough to make it compelling. The work always seemed to need more of a contrast between the realistically painted passages and the gestural, abstract ones.
Those complaints are moot in Fraleigh's seven-and-a-half-foot-long masterwork they would tell each other you can live with this (2011). In it, two women hold crude masks up to their faces that read like frozen screams.
A lurid green mask with a gaping, red-rimmed mouth absolutely makes the painting. One of the eyeholes reveals a beautifully rendered, glassy blue eye staring back at you while the shiny fingernails of a hand seem to reach out through a pool of translucent paint. Glossy, dark blond, shampoo commercial-worthy hair cascades around the faces behind the masks. But you aren't quite sure that those faces are of a whole — the features seem slightly skewed, almost as if taking the masks away would reveal a frightening patchwork of features.
It's a powerfully jarring painting. The reddish, pinkish, whitish "spills" of paint across the surface feel incredibly visceral, the colors flowing into each like blood and pus spilling from a festering wound. In spite of that characterization, it's not revolting — it's like watching a physical and psychological train wreck — you can't take your eyes away.
Far as my eyes could see (2010) is pretty good as well. It shows a woman's face, her eyes staring off while her hair almost obscures her features. A baroque sweep of similarly visceral paint moves across, the horizontal movement of the paint and the vertical strokes of the hair working well against each other.
There is a similar use of poured paint in these fragments I have against my ruins (2010), but the color moves toward the hue of dark blood and the texture of the paint looks clotted. Instead of obscuring the features of a young woman, the pool of paint moves over an image of dogs attacking a wild boar. But here the brushy sweep of the animals' fur blends into the paint Fraleigh has pooled and swept across the surface. The painting visually breaks apart and muddies itself; it just doesn't make it to the level of the later work with the masks.
Fraleigh has some other works on view, a series of sculptures placed on little white shelves as well as an assortment of pencil drawings. She's using some interesting things like clumps of grass or a sponge cast in white porcelain, as well as human hair wigs in a shade similar to that which appears in her paintings. There is a nice moment in i believe in you (2011) in which the words of the title are written backwards on a little clay "rock" leaning against a porcelain grass clump. The sentence is visible to the viewer in a mirror propped against an opposite "grass" clump.
Lonlily loomed into bone (2011) is the back of a wig on a wig form. Real thistles and others cast in porcelain are tangled into it. It has a slight wallowing-on-the-forest-floor vibe to it. But the sculptures are really uneven, and a metal chalice with hair spilling out of it feels like a beginning sculpture-assemblage project.
Someone should chart the resurgence of pencil on paper over the last decade. It's interesting how a medium that once had the stink of high school art class about it has been embraced for those very same reasons. Fraleigh is carefully rendering things like a baby alligator emerging from an egg, a Hokusai-esque wave, a ghostly, floating, single-wide trailer behind bare tree branches, and a woman tossing her hair. I especially liked you flutter invisible still (2011), a painstakingly rendered rectangle of wood flooring, and swarm (2011), a drawing of the eyes of a macrame owl.
I'm glad that Fraleigh is open to working in a variety of media, but I don't think it's as successful as the painting or that it should necessarily hang together. There is a strong autobiographical vibe running through the show that likely links the works together for the artist but not necessarily for the viewer. The woman in the paintings looks like Fraleigh, and a really beautifully written passage in Fraleigh's artist's statement describes an early childhood with a trailer home. I'm sure there are other personal connections with the objects and imagery I could find out about, but once the show is up, the work has to speak for itself. Personal biography is great fodder, but I also think you have to step back at some point and ask yourself how things work and hang together independent of a narrative that only you are truly privy to.
But ultimately, that mask painting is so great, the rest of the show could be horrible — and it's not. That doesn't mean the sculpture and drawings can't get there at some point. They just need the same level of commitment, thought and focus that Fraleigh has brought to her paintings.
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