Janet Werner gets real: Piece and parcel

Piece and parcel

Girl With Red Shirt, by Janet Werner
Photo: Paul Litherland

Janet Werner splits her portraits back into pieces

Janet Werner’s approach to portraiture has always been a narrative one. In the late ’90s, her work went as far as incorporating language literally – lost little words or phrases inhabited the canvas to hint at the story behind the paintings. Classically, her installations would be constellations of small canvases distributed on a wall in a seemingly happenstance configuration, all pieces interrelating, some featuring figures, others words, others still monochromatic colour fields or abstract patterns.

It’s closer to the turn of the decade that Werner began focusing more exclusively on the people amongst her many sources of inspiration, particularly with a series of portraits exhibited at the Beautiful Losers exhibition at Regina’s Dunlop Art Gallery in 2000. In that series, Werner invented characters that she painted in larger-than-life formats with a post-impressionistic palette that endowed each creature with a particular, individual energy. The eyes are where most of the artist’s attention seemed to be spent: a man’s expressionistically painted pink face – parts of it thick with impasto, others nearly fluid in their transparency – would be otherwise unremarkable if it weren’t for his blood red stare. Werner exposed herself in that exhibition as an eloquent raconteur of humanity.

Since then, people are the resource Werner has continued to mine. Her portraits are mostly of women, and have segued in composition from passport photo-type frontal torso perspectives to a much wider variety. Her invented characters through time took on a feminist discourse, relating to femininity and identity, for those who chose to see it – some of her girls look coyly back at the viewer under heavily made-up lids (2003′s Shy Girl), while others either look aggressively back at us or could care less at being watched as they lounge nonchalantly.

With the new series currently exhibited at the Saidye Bronfman’s Liane and Danny Taran Gallery, curator Renee Baert points to a new development in Werner’s train of thought. While up to now her portraits have been loaded with the emotional narratives of invented people (only occasionally based on pictures of real people like models, whose pictorial identity is invented anyway), Werner’s painting of the last five years more often than not incorporates figures drawn from a wide range of sources. Ranging from 19th century miniatures to dolls to porcelain figurines to fashion photography from the 20th century, the people – women, mostly – Werner now paints are rooted in reality. This shift is subtle, but animates the discussion on identity: the range of femininity depicted is more anthropological in nature than it was when it related only to Werner’s psychological imagination. And yet, though recognizably referential, the depictions remain transformed by Werner’s brush, colours, scale and flourishes. The images may not have been hers at the start, but they certainly are by the end of it.

With that shift has also come a very interesting modification of composition. Even within this exhibition, the difference between the works from 2004 and 2005 is marked: Recently, the artist seems to have returned to her constellations of the ’90s, but this time within a single plane. Paintings like Untitled (Floating) offer an unstable monochromatic background on which objects, indeed, float: a figure we recognize from Reclining Girl, a coffee cup, a pair of gloves, a red-roofed house caught in a crystal ball. Or in Skaters, a miniature couple skating on an ice rink in a bubble among a starry plane of other bubbles and sparks. These forays into a renewed form of associative surrealism have the effect of fragmenting the stories Werner has become a sure hand at telling, via her single-character portraits, into a multitude of mini-tales expressed through myriad elements. The relations we ourselves make between them are where the narratives lie.

Don’t miss your chance to visit the show and chat with the artist this weekend for a Sultry Summer Sunday! Enjoy lounge music, tea, afternoon cocktails and cakes in the shade of the trees on the lawn of the Saidye, at 5170 Côte-Ste-Catherine, from 2 to 4 p.m.

Janet Werner
Saidye Bronfman Centre, to Aug. 21

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Visual Arts