The Untold Story: Artists Take Portraiture Beyond What Our Eyes Can See

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Pamela Wilson's "Darkling Out Of True" 36" x 36" Oil. 2015
Pamela Wilson’s “Darkling Out Of True” 36″ x 36″ Oil. 2015

By Annette Hinkle

Historically speaking, portraits throughout time have said a lot about status and taste, period and attitude. But at Sag Harbor’s Richard J. Demato Gallery artists frequently venture beyond what’s expected in portraiture by offering images of individuals who tell deeper tales, both real and imagined.

Among the artists whose work is on view at the gallery are Rachel Moseley and Pamela Wilson — two painters who bring portraiture to life in intriguing, yet very different, ways.

A year and a half ago Ms. Moseley moved from San Francisco to Las Vegas with her husband so he could do his residency there as an emergency room doctor. And while she found Las Vegas to be a lot of things, one thing she quickly learned it wasn’t was a place to make long lasting friendships.

“When I got there, I realized how lonely and crazy Las Vegas is as a place to live,” says Ms. Moseley. “In San Francisco you can go out to a bar and meet interesting people.”

“But Las Vegas is not like that,” adds Ms. Moseley who finds the city very transient and made up of people who work primarily in the service industries.

“They’re up all night and sleep all day,” she says. “It’s a different pace for us. So we got a dog and I started walking to the 7-Eleven near our house as a break during the day.”

As a result, rather than rejecting the transient nature of Las Vegas, Ms. Moseley embraced it by exploring a new type of portraiture — one in which she invites total strangers to sit for her in her studio. In order to gather source material, she spends hours in conversation getting acquainted with her subjects, photographing them throughout to capture their facial expressions and mannerisms. She also takes them to 7-Eleven where she invites her subjects to pick out props to use in their portrait.

“I’m using 7-Eleven for this metaphor of my time in Las Vegas, and the subjects are people I’ve met there,” explains Ms. Moseley. “They’re also reflective self portraits, they’re light hearted and silly — but at the same time, they’re not.”

Among the paintings from Ms. Moseley’s Las Vegas series is one titled “The Best House on a Bad Block,” currently on view at RJD gallery. The portrait features a young woman gazing intently at the viewer with a colorful strand of Christmas lights draped around her neck.

Rachel Moseley's "The Best House on a Bad Block," 20" x 16" oil.
Rachel Moseley’s “The Best House on a Bad Block,” 20″ x 16″ oil.

This particular model, explains Ms. Moseley, was found not at 7-Eleven, but at a high-end lingerie store at Caesar’s Palace where the young woman was working. After talking with her a bit, Ms. Moseley learned that the woman had moved to Las Vegas with her boyfriend, a body builder, who had hopes of making it big. But life is rarely predictable, and the woman told Ms. Moseley that she could make more working at the lingerie store than her boyfriend could in his chosen profession.

When the young woman came by Ms. Moseley’s studio for her photo session, the artist suggested, as she often does, that they walk over to the 7-Eleven to buy a prop for her portrait. But as they were preparing to leave the house, the young woman noticed a pile of Christmas lights in the corner of Ms. Moseley’s room.

“She just wrapped herself in them, and it was organic,” says Ms. Moseley. “I love the idea of this really severe girl. She was very interesting too – she came from a crappy little town in the Midwest, but had this great family she was close to.”

And that, she explains, is where the painting gets its title which referencing as it does the young woman’s relationship with her family and her positive outlook, despite the hardships life has dealt her. It’s a quality that defines life for a lot of people who come to Las Vegas looking to find fame and fortune.

“I couldn’t tell the next step for her,” admits Ms. Moseley of the young woman, who had also become a mother during her time in Las Vegas. “She appears to be settled and happy and all of that, even still, it’s a tough life.”

“I can’t tell everything that’s going on with them — that’s why these are sort of self portraits,” she adds. “It’s turned into an interesting project and it’s weird the way it happened. I’m enjoying painting strangers. I think if I was painting people I was close to, I wouldn’t be reflective of my time there.”

While Rachel Moseley paints the truth of her newly met subjects through the lens of a fair bit of self-examination, Pamela Wilson’s portraits begin with sitters she knows quite well, but then, she veers off in a totally different direction by taking her subjects to interesting locations, giving them intriguing props and encouraging them to invent a narrative and history all their own using pure imagination.

“Most work I see out there is ‘right now.’ No one is taking advantage of taking me somewhere else,” explains Ms. Wilson who strives to do just that in her work by offering images that speak to a place just outside of reality. “I don’t think painting has to be a record of our time at present. What I like to do is poetry in art — marrying things that don’t match — and you’re caught off guard and your mind finishes it for you.”

“When I photograph my subjects, I shoot from the hip. Often, I don’t know what’s going to happen, I just bring pieces and play from there,” says Ms. Wilson, who’s based in Santa Monica, California. “I’m setting up a scenario where you finish the story.”

That story frequently includes a liberal dose of mystery which is evident at RJD Gallery in Ms. Wilson’s “Darkling Out of True” an intense portrait of a young girl in vintage clothing clutching an antique doll.

Ms. Wilson relies on her models for inspiration, and among her current favorite subjects are her boyfriend’s young daughters, including the one in this painting. They are always willing to bring their own imagination to the compositions, she notes.

“They’re hauntingly beautiful,” says Ms. Wilson who photographs the girls in locations as diverse as a Utah train yard or an Aspen forest in order to come up with source material.

“Give a little girl some dress up clothes and cut her loose in a train yard and she’ll get creative,” says Ms. Wilson. “They’re playing, trying on all these personalities and getting into it. They just go to these places. They’re little thinkers and they intrigue me so much.”

Because her subjects bring their own imagination to the process, often Ms. Wilson doesn’t even know the whole story in her paintings. For example, when photographing the girls in the aspen forest, she gave them ball jars and told them to use them to collect something from the woods and then pretend they were visitors from the past sent to give a warning.

“They don’t need a lot of direction,” she says. “There was creepy water in this jar. For me, it’s a message about preservation — specimens to see what earthlings did.”

The truth is, Ms. Wilson never did find out for sure what it was her young subject put in that jar, yet there it is, included in the final portrait — and that’s largely the point. Not everything needs to, or should be explained in art.

Pamela Wilson's "Underwater," 24" x 24," oil.
Pamela Wilson’s “Underwater,” 24″ x 24,” oil.

“I provoke. I want you to finish the ending,” says Ms. Wilson. “I try to make a space that couldn’t exist anywhere, but does here.”

Another of Ms. Wilson’s paintings at the Demato Gallery is titled “Underwater,” and it features a female subject in a top hat and striped Victorian skirt and jacket drinking absinthe and water.

Absinthe — a spirit that was popular in the 19th century and purportedly made people mad — figures prominently in paintings by earlier masters like Degas and it is a current interest of Ms. Wilson’s as well. It has also become the basis of a series of paintings for her.

“I spent the last year collecting everything absinthe, not because I want to go back in time, but because I stick it in my world where it doesn’t fit,” explains Ms. Wilson. “I think a lot about the mystique and ghosts, it’s an exciting subject for painting, rather than table wine, it’s interesting.”

“It’s also really fun,” she adds. “But ideally I’m trying to communicate in a way that doesn’t involve words.”

The work of Rachel Moseley and Pamela Wilson is on view at Richard J. Demato Gallery, 90 Main Street, Sag Harbor. For more information visit rjdgallery.com or call (631) 725-1161.

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