Artist Ann Duffy is highly attuned to the effects of light on objects, capturing nuances of color and shadow in order to evoke not just a time of day, but the sensation of that time of day. In "New Cityscapes," Duffy is presenting views of, and moments in, Seattle and Los Angeles.
If you quickly glance at Ann Duffy’s very, very realistic paintings of city scenes (now on view at the charming Vermillion gallery and bar on Capitol Hill), you might simply — and rightly — be impressed by her artistic skill. On the other hand, if you really think about the subject matter, Ann Duffy’s “cityscape” paintings could get depressing. There’s a subtle sense of eerie isolation in her paintings, with very little human interaction, stretches of empty roadway, looming neon signs and cars with only a driver, no passengers. These are scenes of city life, but they read more like still-lifes.
It’s important to consider the realistic technique and the subject matter in unison. The relatively small paintings (the largest in the show is 27 inches by 23 inches) are too beautifully painted and richly atmospheric to be gloomy. And they’re too thoughtful, quiet and occasionally funny to be dismissed as swaggering demonstrations of representational skill.
Seattle-based Duffy says that she “takes her realism seriously,” but she does not want to be tagged as a photorealist. While a photorealist creates a painting that can pass for a photograph, Duffy says that “there’s always an abstract element to my compositions.” The paintings are filled with strong lines and blocky shapes, but they are also exquisitely detailed and denote particular moments of day.
Duffy is highly attuned to the effects of light on objects, capturing nuances of color and shadow in order to evoke not just a time of day, but the sensation of that time of day. In this show, Duffy is presenting views of, and moments in, Seattle and Los Angeles, a city that she visits fairly often. As a former Los Angeleno, I was deeply struck by the almost tangible density of the light that Duffy produces in “Sunset on Sunset Boulevard.” The light is lustrous and warm but also thick and grainy, as if filtered through the famous Southern California smog.
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This straightforward presentation of the way things look and feel allows Duffy to suggest other aspects of reality. When she presents a landmark or icon, like Sunset Boulevard, the Space Needle or Mount Rainier, she includes and often focuses on the gas stations, billboards, freeway signs that surround them, as if implying that these banal elements truly compose the settings of our daily lives.
Every once in a while, Duffy makes more explicit comments about society, inserting witty, fictional moments into the visions of reality. In “The Rapture,” the Greyhound Bus station, on the outskirts of downtown Seattle, is dominated by a billboard that advertises a quick way to get in touch with Jesus and the promised glory of the Rapture. Duffy says that “after eight years of George Bush in the White House and all of the religion that had seeped into government, it seemed like religion became something you could find on the corner.”
But don’t go looking for fictional twists or hidden meanings in all of her paintings. Mostly, Duffy is engaged in the traditional process of rendering an image that is true to life. You may not know it to look at her stable, highly formal compositions, but Duffy works “pretty fast,” applying her oil paints with a wet-on-wet technique. Rather than sketching and filling in with paint, she immediately paints in “loose masses that can be shifted and altered, to create a feeling of spontaneity.”
In person, you can marvel over the technical aspects of Duffy’s work and then step back, and into, the scenes, musing about the human relationship with the urban landscape.