Gail Hillow Watkins
Gail Watkins is a painter who creates her work from several materials: comics, photocopy, paint, and glue. The surfaces are then roughly reworked with sandpaper, wire brushes, boiling water, or graffiti. Her collages are similarly constructed. The resulting surfaces are marvelously complex, with thin layers that are abstract, but that hold the memory of readable copy, in the form of written materials, or suggest figurative forms. The colors that regularly come up in this work are sandstone; deep, dark reds; and dark tans. One has the sense that Watkins is making a contemporary palimpsest, one that goes back centuries, even if made within the length of the last generation. This means, then, that the work aspires both to contemporaneity and antiquity, not so much through a melding process as by suggestion. It is rather like the torn movie posters one sees in public, in which you can read earlier writing and images connected to a previous film advertisement. The layers of memory suggested by Watkins’ art is powerfully evocative, the result of a point of view in which memory itself is the subject. Turning something so immaterial as memory into a physical object transforms our expectations of a thought process we usually would consider abstract into something of actual substance, which is the basis of Watkins’ creativity.
Really, it is the complexity of surface effects that makes Watkins’ art unusual. The layers of paper, roughly worked, create wonderfully complicated effects and patterns that give the paintings the artfulness of a low relief, without evidencing a recognizable depth of any sort. Yet any representation of time and its passage would likely need some sense of depth to be effective. So like a lot of good art, Watkins’ paintings work out a contradiction in terms, their paradoxical effect the result of the suggestion of depth, which might be likened to the perspective a thin laptop screen can imply. At the same time, the works could be seen as variants, at least in color, on pottery shards from age-old cultures in the colors she uses. But we do not actually know the specific culture the art is quoting from. Contemporary art does not usually do justice to a particular legacy in all its venerable precedence, but this is intimated in Watkins’ surface treatments. Indeed, if the art convinces us that it comes from the archaic past, it is mostly because it looks like a tablet--a decorative relief formed by a cylinder with three-dimensional imagery having been rolled across a flat slab of clay.
Despite the suggestion of what has been written, we cannot describe Watkins’ paintings as the artifacts of a museum. This is contemporary art in which the jagged edges and irregular rifts of the works’ surface create a complexity that is quite new, linked to our preference for the partial rather than the historical. One has the feeling that Watkins is not replicating historical art so much as she has developed her own way of presenting the past--this view is supported by the bits of words that can also be found in her art. Of course, the letters indicate contemporary English, likely being taken from recent comic books. They peek out at the viewer in their torn, tattered state, and their presence in the midst of a broken surface would emphasize a current esthetic--since the Romantic era, we have preferred the fragmentary to the whole, and Watkins’ paintings are no exception. We find in the artist’s sensibility a commitment to the implications to the torn or incomplete, as well as an ongoing engagement with beauty. Even as her art offers a meditation, an inspired one, on what it is like to conceive of the past, what sustains these works is the state of elegance, a present-day one, that is offered.
Gail Hillow Watkins creates mixed media works, using comic strips, decorative motifs, pigments, and mediums. By sanding and distressing the surfaces to expose strata of printed matter, her pieces refer to layers of history and personal experience.
Watkins was born and raised in Washington, DC. She studied nursing at Duke University and painting at American University, where she received an MA in 1963. Her early interest was in still life and figure painting, but during post-graduate studies an instructor was crucial in sparking her interest in abstraction. Watkins cites the influence of minimalism on her use of the grid as an organizing structure. The paintings of Willem de Kooning and Jackson Pollock provided for Watkins examples for the excavation of compacted forms and for the sinuous use of line. From the work of Vermeer and Caravaggio, she learned to visually compose shapes into "combined forms".
A graduate course in Renaissance sculpture was the beginning of the central influence of Italian art on Watkins's work. Since 1982, the artist has visited Italy yearly to absorb the art and to study Italian. Of particular importance has been her study of ruins, frescos, and ancient walls. In 1985, Watkins was Artist-in-Residence at the University of Georgia Studies Abroad program in Italy. In 2001, she was in a group exhibition at the Marino Marini Museum in Pistoia, and a solo exhibition is planned at the Palazzo Ferretti in Cortona in 2003.
During the mid-1970s, Watkins's work developed in a series of grid paintings that employed a rosette motif from the tomb of the Egyptian goddess Nut. Both the presence an ornamental pattern and the use of sanding techniques would become recurring features of the artist's work. A series of shaped canvases in the mid-1970's was followed by the large paintings reflecting her immersion Italian culture, that Watkins produced through the 1980s. In the late 1990s, she began her ongoing involvement in work employing color comics and stenciled floral forms.
Watkins, who for twenty years taught art at St. John's College in Anapolis, MD, has exhibited her work extensively, including solo exhibitions at Duke University, the Susquehanna Art Museum, and the Franz Bader Gallery in Washington, DC. Her group exhibitions include Linked to Landscape, which traveled from the Corcoran Museum of Art, to the Trenton City Museum of Art, and to the DeLand Museum. Watkins's work is many private and corporate collections, including those of the Hyatt Corporation and the National Institutes of Health. In 1996, her work was acquired by the Watkins Collection at American University.
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