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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

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  • by Maria Jankovics - August 2, 2005, 8:57 pm

    Well it seems the shift from abstract monocromatic paintings and installations Janet Werner is submerging herself more fully in showing everything she wants to show you. Meaning now her realism takes off where before the abstracts were just hints and glimmers of her narrative and so now she is letting you totally into her world. She isn’t hiding behind her abstracts she nows wants to let as they say ‘let it all hang out’. Her more intense work around the eyes is natural as this is the heart and soul of Janet portrayed through the images she has painted. In the surreal rendering of her subject matter she is giving another aspect of another outerworldly feel and when the figures float in a bubble it seems the spirits are rising light as feathers. A weight has been lifted so this is why that floating sensation and the bubble represents weightlessness. So I believe this shift now to realism is just another metaphor expressing herself and her feelings. Artists just like Janet and myself should be honest in their work otherwize it’s not us.

  • by Vanessa Hasid - August 5, 2005, 12:20 am

    I once saw part of a Janet Werner exhibition at a Montreal museum, it may have possibly been the Contemporary Art museum. And I must say, that I am not such a big fan of portraits, but Janet’s work in particular, is actually a tad freaky. If you’re in general not a huge portrait fan, I wouldn’t necessarily recommend Janet’s work, because it won’t make you like portraits even more, but it will actually make you dislike them even more than you did before. The characters in her portraits often seem somewhat lifeless, and give you an eerie sort of vibe when looking at them, especially the eyes and the seriousness of their expressions. However, I have friends that saw the exhibition with me and enjoyed it, so I suppose it depends on your taste. I guess if you’re not a big portrait fan to begin with, like me, then seeing art like this won’t be enjoyable, but perhaps a fan of portraiture will really enjoy Janet’s style.
    And it’s being held at the Saidye Bronfman Centre too, which is a great exhibition space. It’s not too big that you can get lost, but not too small for it to be too short a visit. It’s well crafted and fun to walk through, and provides just enough space for lots of artwork to be displayed. And the best part is that it’s free. So if you’re not completely sure that a particular exhibition will strike your fancy, you can stop by anyway, and stay or leave at your own expense. It’s also really great that Janet will be there to chat about her work; not something that a lot of exhibits do with artists. The Saidye Bronfman is a very relaxed atmosphere, and fairly posh for a small, intimate venue. The tea and afternoon cocktails as added bonuses sound delicious as well. And I actually work next door to the Saidye Bronfman Centre and have already received a few phone calls regarding the exhibition. Seems it’s already getting quite a bit of interest, and it’s on for quite awhile longer, so I’d definitely suggest checking it out one quiet afternoon!

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