Erwin’s Pastels: Recent Portraits Studies of Estrangement and Reconciliation

March 25th, 2014  |  Published in *, March 2014, On View  |  1 Comment

by Marlene Steele

Gaela Erwin, Manifest Gallery Cincinnati Ohio An effect of contrasted light and shadow. Origin Latin: chiaro ‘clear,bright’ + oscuro ‘dark, obscure’  pastel: noun:  a crayon made of powdered pigments bound with gum or resin. adjective: of a soft and delicate shade or color.

The interlude where I met Gaela Erwin occurred in the minutes before her scheduled gallery talk at Manifest showing of her current pastel work: ‘RECENT PORTRAITS”

A tall and attractive Louisville native, she emerged from the anteroom to shake my hand and apologized for the cold touch.  I recognized her immediately from her own portrait series, a process of self exploration that this artist has carried out extensively in recent years.

Erwin reveals that she arrives at her subject matter intuitively. Her development of introspective self-portraits have evolved into paintings of her far-flung family members. For an artist who is known to work perceptually, it is interesting to note that photography has become an integral part of this process. As her mother lapsed into dementia, Gaela found herself in charge of maternal affairs. The long drives to North Carolina to attend to her mother’s needs drained her.  Erwin resolved to make her mother’s late battle with Altzheimer’s her art project. The compositions presented in this exhibit are derived from photographic images dissecting classic family dynamics, her sister, her mother and herself. Make no mistake: these works are salient statements mapping out a new and foreign territory with the faces of her family as the battlefield.

The works “My Sister” and “My Sister Looking Right” confront the viewer with a distinctly contemporary take on the portrait elements. The facial plane is assaulted by an unforgiving light and hovers over an unclothed or sometimes gauze-glazed  bodice. In several pieces, the design of the presentations is abstracted when the head and upper body is revealed with the blocked light pattern. In these works, the abstraction of the photographic elements is combined with perceptual and personal emotional memories. Erwin’s exploratory pieces investigate an undeniable, palpable tension in the family dynamic that is possibly more significant because of the decline of the mother. The expressions and gestures writhe with emotion. Enmity and animosity, resignation and forgiveness lurk in the stark portraits featured here.

My Sister Looking Right, Medium: pastel, 22x 19

In “Mother and Child Reunion”, Erwin juxtaposes her own figure in the upper left with her mother’s figure reposed from the bottom right. Her mother, sans street clothes, lies prone in a purple fleece, partially unzipped and pulled down tight, restricting any conceivable movement. The unzipped and sleeveless appearance of the fleece also lends itself to a subliminal association with the body bag. Contrasting the restricted armless torso of the mother with the natural open arm position of her own figure in street clothes invites a comparison of the active and inactive, the capable younger woman and the pending indisposition of the elder. A childlike scrawl in the shadowy recesses may allude to her youthful memories of her mother’s arms. The spacial interlude between the two women is starkly patterned with a raking light from the upper left. The resulting reflective light bounce activates and enlivens the spacial recesses between the two generations.

Mother and Child Reunion, Medium: pastel, 57x 48

Another emotionally raw work is the largest piece entitled “Portrait of My Mother In a Wedding Dress”. Resting on a white three cushion couch with her small dog on her lap, her mother’s white tufted head lists distractingly to one side. Simply asleep in the sunlight or recently deceased?  Adorned in cascading crumpled satin, her mother’s shoeless body rests as in slumber or death. Her hands, small and age worn, punctuate long tapering sleeves and nestle with finality between her deflated thighs, the tiny sliver of a gold wedding ring worn away and barely noticeable.

Portrait of my Mother in a Wedding Dress, Medium: pastel, 49 x 35

As I experienced the work, I forgot that the medium was pastel throughout.

I enjoyed her pieces for their painterliness and versatile surface handling. Executed on museum grade Wallis paper, Erwin challenges this classic support with multiple revisions, water washes and layers of pastel application. She pushes the medium and the support’s flexibility until the resolution emerges. Her struggle to get at the right push/pull, the give and take, is apparent and rewarded. Velvety surfaces blaze in the startling searing white light. Lush darks and the dramatic, unadulterated markmaking that carry the images are seductive and authentic, vivifying the assaultive light borrowed from Caravaggio. Chiaroscuro, the exaggerated dark/light effect, is not the only element she borrows from the Italian master who was the inspiration of her recent intensive study in Italy.

Self Portrait in Afternoon Light, Medium: pastel, 28x 22

A true exploration of the psychology of ‘my mother, my self’ emerges from the realism of her family’s  unidealized visages and confrontational frontal postures. With elements borrowed from Caravaggian realism, Erwin’s works echo the realizations of grief and resignation that Caravaggio’s dutifully attendant saints and shoeless common people both experience while worshiping the madonnas or burying their christs.

Self Portrait with Illumination #2, pastel, 21.5x 18

In the words of this contemporary artist, “we replicate our family of origin in everything we do, domestically, (in the) workplace….art as therapeutic process…”

…and perhaps forgiveness and absolution found.

Marlene Steele paints and teaches in Cincinnati, Ohio.


  1. Gaela Erwin says:

    April 1st, 2014at 12:24 pm(#)

    What a wonderfully insightful review. I feel as though my innermost self has been revealed by you. I learn more about my work from reading your shrewd insights. Thank you so much for this.