After many years of painting portraits mostly of women, Janet Werner has now turned inward, producing a body of work that reflects abstractly on the medium of painting, its materials and its making. The 16 works in ‘Sticky Pictures’, her solo exhibition at Parisian Laundry in Montréal, display the promising results of this exploration.
In some works, the figure has vanished altogether, and only a monochromatic block remains, leaving the appearance of an empty frame – as in Black Book (2017) and This (2017). Those seeming absences, however, suggest that the artist has opened a dark back door onto portraiture itself. Elsewhere, sundry anterior details – Werner’s studio, inspirations, studies – take centre stage. In Hover (The Distance between Here and There) (2017), for instance, Werner foregrounds her source material – torn fashion magazine spreads, dog-eared photographs and so on – as primary information. Whether thrown on a table or languishing on the floor in her studio, the images are often central. In these paintings about painting, the tools of Werner’s process have become her subject matter.
In some paintings, as in Something, Someone, No One (2017), Werner’s unsettling use of chiaroscuro produces the effect of a proscenium stage. But there are no actors to consider, just a platform or a frame. When the figure does return, it appears foreshortened, mirrored, cropped, elongated, smudged. Female figures can be seen as if through a glass darkly, in grotesque positions and sombre shades of grey; they possess a furious, feral, perhaps unhinged mien, as in the titular Sticky Pictures (2017). Eerie spatial distortions abound. Werner’s figuration undergoes an extreme stress test as she twists bodies into unsettling poses. The figure in the right half of HalfHalf (2016), for example, stretches her arm towards the left register; it is elongated, taffy-like, as if pulled by some unseen force.
Often painted in murky tones, with nearly abstract phrases, Werner invests these new paintings with an eerie, almost occult resonance. Whereas, in her earlier work, she worked to subvert accepted canons of pictorial beauty, here she subverts representation itself. These works are not only an interesting rumination on the artistic process, but seem possessed of a certain wilful instability, disrupting the nature of representation. The show’s title, ‘Sticky Pictures’, makes us think of images so ubiquitous and unforgettable that they adhere like glue to the retina. Werner’s portraits have never been safe or easy, and these paintings are no exception. This exhibition is proof that the artist – a congenital risk-taker allergic to stasis – is pushing her work into dark, exciting places.
Main image: Janet Werner, ‘Sticky Pictures’, 2017, exhibition view, Parisian Laundry, Montréal, Canada. Left: Sticky Pictures, 2017, oil on canvas, 1.9 x 1.5 m. Right: Someone, Something, No One, 2017, oil on canvas, 1.7 x 1.5 m. Courtesy: Parisian Laundry, Montréal