Kerry Inman is looking skeptically down her nose at Texas Gallery. Er, rather, she's at Texas Gallery looking down her nose. Her portrait and its floral-wallpaper-on-steroids background is part of Francesca Fuchs's new exhibition "Portrait Paintings." The uncharacteristic image of the affable owner of Inman Gallery was sampled from an old photograph taken by Fuchs's husband, artist Bill Davenport. Beware those impromptu snapshots; you never know where they might resurface.
Fuchs's paintings are, for the most part, based on images she takes with "the cheapest little digital camera." She digitally manipulates her accumulated photos, sometimes combining two different poses, the facial expression from one, the head tilt from another. This morphing of different shots of the same person imparts a charming awkwardness to Fuchs's incredibly slickly painted images. They have the subjective and emotionally evocative nature of a sketch but are derived from photographic images. It is an extremely effective use of digital media as a tool.
The compositions for Fuchs's paintings are built, rather than found. She places the manipulated portraits against various backgrounds drawn from her extensive retro pattern archive. Much of Fuchs's earlier work culled designs from vintage fabrics -- sheets, bedspreads and curtains in '60s stripes, '70s florals and geometrics -- that she scavenges from thrift stores. Digitally photographed, the images are stored on her hard drive for future use. In the current work, Fuchs selects patterns and images from the digital warehouse in response to her subjects. Sometimes she tosses in segments of rooms -- door frames, light switches. It's all about creating the visual structure of the work. The composition is dominant, with the portraits and backgrounds acting as equally important elements.
Once the painting is composed, Fuchs uses a Photoshop filter to pick out all the edges of the image, further simplifying it into flat areas and line. The image is projected and drawn on paper before it is transferred to the canvas. During the paper stage, Fuchs may further tweak the image by hand, erasing and redrawing. She wants the figures to be stylized but not cartoony, a difficult balance to maintain.
Among the paintings are portraits of Texas Gallery owners Fredericka Hunter and Ian Glennie. Ian (2002) is set against an optically powerful background of chocolate-brown diagonal diamonds. The geometric shapes of light switches and a multiline phone outlet act as abstract forms/symbols of commerce. Glennie's body is simplified into a flat shape of dark gray blazer and pale blue shirt delineated by only the simplest of lines. The head has been exaggerated in scale, the roundness of the skull mirrored by the circular lenses of his glasses. A sparing use of line indicates the facial features, while the flesh is a solid tone coating the canvas.
The third element in Fuchs's visual strategy is manifest in the painting's colors. Everything feels like it is viewed through a haze. Fuchs skillfully tints her images to a foglike effect that creates a visual uniformity between subject and ground. There are no hazy, misty mountains in the distance; everything is hazy -- foreground, background, middle ground -- all are viewed through the same filter. This keying and graying color further flattens all of the components into a whole. But getting those tonalities sometimes requires multiple repaintings. Because Fuchs tapes off all the forms to create their crisp painted edges, she can't see how adjacent colors will interact until the tape is gone. A general color scheme can be devised on the computer screen, but translating that into real-world pigment and binder is another story.
In Fredericka (2002), Fuchs places her blue-chip contemporary art dealer against a quaint natural background of songbirds perched on branches. Fuchs takes the hokey bird print, changes the scale and renders it with an Asian simplicity. Hunter wears a blue-gray shirt and stares expressionless at the viewer, her striking white hair a sculptural form framing her face. The cool colors and deadpan calm of the image are reminiscent of the restrained tones of Netherlandic painters such as Vermeer or the self-contained presences in Jan van Eyck's portraits. The flattening of the figures into elements of equal weight with the background recalls the highly stylized portraits of Alex Katz, but Katz's work feels more emotionally cauterized and more heavily vested in formal issues of abstraction. It lacks the pop culture associations and underlying emotional tenor of Fuchs's work.
Fuchs's image of her husband, Bill with Shoe (2003), places him against a kitschy background vertically striped with orange and brown flowers. Rather than feeling rigidly static, the pattern sways slightly, subtly animating the image. The dome of Bill's skull is nicely exaggerated -- excess brainpower or a slight case of hydrocephalus? He smiles and holds a gray baby shoe in his hand. The image would make a great diptych paired with Fuchs's self-portrait Shower Curtain (2002.)
In Shower Curtain, Fuchs peers around a striped panel with the evocative vintage colors of avocado-green and turquoise-blue. (I think we used to have sheets like that.) With her arms akimbo, we see Fuchs's shoulder and part of a dorky white cotton bra, the nursing mother variety. Her smiling face is amiably skewed.
Katrina (2002) is one of the least effective works in the exhibition, although even at that it is still a good painting. But what it does is serve to highlight what really works in Fuchs's other compositions. In it, Katrina Moorhead is shown crouching on the horizontal stripes of a wooden floor holding a child's toy in her hands, looking up at the camera. She is located in a room with the highly stylized details of a lamp and miniblinded windows backed with trees. It is a well-composed image, but the full figure and simplified but still illusionary space lack the punch that is delivered in works like Bill Lassiter (2002).
In this incredibly striking work, the orange-shirted figure is cut off at the waist and starkly placed against a dynamic flat pattern. Part of a lime-green window and a brown frame oddly crop the oh-so-flat space. A beige light switch succinctly anchors the left side of the wall. The pattern strategy isn't infallible, however. At the other end of the spectrum, Brad (2002) is on the cusp of being overwhelmed by the strong green, white and yellow horizontal bands behind him. The color seems just a shade off from being subdued enough.
Few of the paintings' subjects are going to come away saying, "Boy, I look really freakin' good" -- these aren't Andy Warhol vanity silk screens -- but the paintings sure look great. Fuchs has created some wonderful stuff. Her seamless execution is tempered by the humanity of slightly off, awkward figures combined with visually engaging patterns, all packaged into her well-crafted compositions. There is something for everyone, not through pandering mishmash, but through Fuchs's smart, skillful selections.
Get the Theater Newsletter
Get a rundown of upcoming theater events and ticket deals in Houston.