Janet Werner


Janet Werner: Zero Eyes (2010): Oil on canvas. Images courtesy Birch Libralato, Toronto.Janet Werner: Zero Eyes (2010): Oil on canvas. Images courtesy Birch Libralato, Toronto.

By James D. Campbell

Janet Werner
Birch Libralato
March 19 – April 23, 2011

Janet Werner’s recent paintings demonstrate how deeply she has mined a contemporary and subversive vein of thinking portraiture. The fruit of that thinking has taken on a weirder mien than ever. In the works shown recently at Birch Libralato, she has performed an exhilarating Alice-through-the-Looking-Glass routine in which her subjects have more in common with David Lynch channeling Alice Neel channeling Vogue than with conventional portraiture.

The loopy subjects in Beauty Takes a Holiday have arrived from an exotic elsewhere, and while she still uses the world of fashion as a source for many of her portraits, she now collages invented heads onto found bodies, colliding signifiers that yield a real frisson. Many of her subjects are no longer clearly human. Morphologies and category mistakes reign supreme.

This will be no surprise to longtime followers of her work. Not so long ago, she started to magnify the spatiality in her paintings, using explicit landscape tropes and conventions, and introducing an array of constituent forms that implied a reciprocity between the figures and their circumstances and surrounds. More recently still, as the paintings exhibited here demonstrate, Werner introduced surreal, and even unsettling, postural and figural possibilities into her work, implicating her viewers in the regional ontologies of her paintings as active actors/seers rather than passive recipients of what is seen/played out therein. Werner turns the tables on viewers – and ups the ante of her painting practice – by offering us a garden variety of distortions that are at once playful, surreal and downright dangerous – even demonic – wholesale.

Janet Werner: deMille (2010): Oil on canvas.Janet Werner: deMille (2010): Oil on canvas.It is as though we see her subjects through anamorphic prisms, with all the attendant uncertainty, as if we could place their distortions within the realm of the solvable and decode her figuration tidily and well. But, no such “fixing” of what we are seeing is possible. Here the anamorphic polyprism has gone wrong. Incongruous elements are stitched together into all-too-possible figural compositions. She creates a subversive painting climate wherein the viewer has to “puzzle out” and assimilate content that is decidedly wayward. Werner shows off her daunting retinue of painting licks while introducing anamorphic factoids into her figures with bewildering sleight-of-hand. In some paintings, a consummately painterly Guston-esque smorgasbord masks the beauty that ruled her work before, now bearing the imprimatur of the painterly qua painterly, a sort of over-the-top tasty frosting of material pigment.

Werner has averred that there is no single category into which her paintings fit tidily. This is again the case in her recent paintings, rife with myriad ‘category mistakes’ of all shapes and sizes. The work resists taxonomy. The true cinematic stars of her paintings are is not debauched celebrities like Paris Hilton but fugitive metamorphic entities, proverbial wolves in sheeps’ clothing, wily hybrids on the prowl imported from Paint-by-Numbers and Vogue magazine spreads, calendar girls and Royal Doulton figurines, inducing sundry emotional and mental states and, as she says, bearing “a multiplicity of images, bits and pieces of the world being brought into view.” But, the hybrid nature notwithstanding, Werner brings a subversive bent to her practice as unique, unalterable and uplifting as her own artistic signature.

Werner always captures a lively palimpsest of racing thoughts that now bears the stigmata of a proverbial hebephrenia of the image. Just as we see, on the threshold of sleep, countless faces that morph one into the next with abandon up close and personal with the retina, and which become increasingly inhuman, post-human or, shall I say, unhuman, so, too, the figures in these paintings skip through paces at once helter-skelter and surreal. Here, we have the eyes of a cat grafted onto an anorexic face – a kind of figural update of The Incredible Shrinking Man seen through a broken kaleidoscope. These figures seem lifted out of our dreams, when explicit content elides with surreal details that undermine and accent what is given with regard to neither perspective nor meaning.

One critic once elegantly likened her paintings to photographer Nancy Burson’s metamorphic beings – methodically disrupting the orthodoxies of facial rendering and installing a doublet or triplet remove from verisimilitude. This tendency, which may also be an ethic, has been integral to Werner’s work for many years. Werner employs an auratic/anamorphic technique that we seldom find used so methodically and well in the arena of contemporary painting, with beguiling humour and spooky disruptions.

Werner stands beside figurative painters like New York-based David Humphrey and George Condo and Montreal-based Marion Wagschal in keeping the art of portraiture alive in the present tense of painting. She reinvents it through imagistic excess, poetic license, oodles of kitsch artefacts, sundry surrealities and a range of wayward mood swings. Her thinking as a creative being is now so wed to the act of painting that such thought and her painting licks have become virtually indistinguishable. For a figurative painter, not an abstractionist, that is all the more remarkable. Werner’s casual authority is such that she can make us believe just about anything. Her painting chops and the hoops she puts her figures through are simply that good. She starts painting, and the end results are transacted under the hood of our own optic, where we are not so easily seduced or dazzled in our image-driven, digitalized culture. A painter’s painter, Werner creates images that hold us firmly in their sway, and then effortlessly sweep us away.

James D. CampbellJames D. Campbell is a writer on art and a curator based in Montreal. He is the author of well over 100 catalogues and books on art and artists. Upcoming and recent publications include monographs on painters Paul Bureau, Michel Daigneault and Mirana Zuger. Campbell also contributes frequently to many art magazines, including Frieze, Border Crossings, Canadian Art and others.