Only a handful of local artists have built up as widespread a following as Seattle painter Lois Silver, currently showing at Lisa Harris Gallery in Pike Place Market. Her shows are regularly sold out, and her modest-sized interior dramas are a fixture on many household walls throughout the region. What is it that people find so attractive about her work, and is there more going on than meets the eye? Joining us to discuss these and other questions, is KUOW art critic, Gary Faigin.
It’s interesting to browse earlier reviews of the paintings of Lois Silver and see the variety of artists that critics have evoked as reminding them of her work: everyone from Pierre Bonnard and Edouard Vuillard, to Richard Diebenkorn and Wolf Kahn. There is something familiar-looking about her art, and it comes from both what she paints, and the way she chooses to paint it.
In terms of subject matter, Silver depicts the domestic world of an earlier era — perhaps inspired by old movies — when men always wore jacket and tie, women hid their matronly figures under cotton-print dresses, and the daytime sun was always shining. All of the living rooms, bedrooms, and nightspots settings are fitted out with lumpy, vintage furniture, and nowhere to be seen are children, traffic, televisions, trashcans, or anything else to suggest a wider, or more modern realm. The many windows are simply panes of light, looking out to nothing.
The inhabitants of these musty spaces look like our parents, middle-class and middle-aged. Silver keeps the specifics of appearance generic — both men and women have streamlined heads that are often missing mouths, and mitten-shaped hands without fingers. Some of the men have skulls drastically shrunken in size in relation to their body, perhaps a dig at the intellectual level of the alpha males of Betty Crocker’s America.
One of the reasons that Silver keeps things simple is her overriding concern with the formal qualities of her work. Her generalizations and stylizations are in service of those elements of design, color, and light which are independent of the narrative, and which are clearly of paramount importance to the artist. Nearly all the pictures feature at least a few areas of intensely zingy color, especially big patches of electric blue, with nearly subliminal red violet often seeping through, and complementary yellow-oranges nearby. Large areas of black or nearly black lend weight, and shapes echo shapes in a pleasing, animated fashion. Furthermore, Silver uses an unusual, blunt painting tool — oil bar — which discourages detail and hard edges, and encourages painterly textures. Her work is thus highly decorative, and that, clearly, is a big part of its appeal.
The artists that have been most frequently mentioned as Silver’s predecessors were also excited by exploring the textures of paint, the visual arousal of playing warm against cool, and the act of designing with shapes. But many of them, particularly the Bay Area group, often blurred the line between what was representational, and what was abstract, and there Silver does not follow.
What distinguishes Silver from many of her painterly forebears — and what keeps her work from being merely decorative — is her additional interest in exploring the psychological as well as physical environment her characters inhabit. Many of her best pictures depict the sort of drama that regularly crackles between intimates, the sort of things that only take place behind closed doors. If her pictures were more abstract we might miss the telling details: the slight tilt of a head or an eyebrow, the direction of a gaze, the gesture of a hand.
We need those nuances: most of the action in Silver’s narratives is implied rather than enacted, the story something we interpret rather than something insisted on by the artist. In the hotel scene, "Writer’s Muse," for example, a man in the foreground has stopped in the midst of his reading or writing to look across at his companion, seated morosely, fully-clothed, on the bed, her arms tightly crossed, and her gaze downwards. What’s most eloquent in the image is the vast empty space between man woman half the picture wide, vibrating with complementary tones of lemon yellow and violet, creating pictorial tension that mirrors the tension between the figures. One is obviously reminded of Hopper and his similar depictions of estranged urban couples, in settings with similar pitched light and retro décor, but Silver’s image is more stylized, more chromatic, and with the architectural space much more quirky. Looked at carefully, Silver’s hotel room floor doesn’t make any sense, but buckles and pitches alarmingly, the perspective skewed and inconsistent — perhaps it’s intentional, meant to further the mood of emotional unrest. I’m less convinced that the ambiguous depiction of the man’s writing hand, where it’s hard to tell what it’s doing or what it’s holding, furthers the artist’s pictorial goals. There are moments like this in the show where the drawing seems a bit too hasty, confusing the message, blunting the effect.
Most of Silver’s women look like they’ve had better days. In "Stare Down," another depressive-looking matron sits on the side of a bed, but this time her companion across a vast empty space is a very self-contained black cat, hugging the floor and looking in the general direction of the woman, who, barefooted, dangles her feet in space. Nobody’s moving, and everything is happening inside, bottled up. In "Caged Bird," a seated woman looks up from her couch at a the looming figure of a stiff, pin-headed man holding a bird in a cage in front of her, a cage whose wire shapes are echoed by the window shapes behind her. Is this a present, or a reminder? And in "Don’t Go," all these unresolved conflicts seem to finally erupt — something actually happens. We see half a woman — her face and much of her body already literally out of the picture — rushing out a door and at the same time attempting to slam it shut behind her, while her male companion reaches out to hold her back. He’s literally black and blue — a mysterious blue patch is spreading over his ebony suit, and he seems frozen in his space, even while he stretches his arm out towards hers. It’s a great picture.
Silver also manages to create a lot of nervous energy even in those paintings without any people. One of my favorite pictures in the show is simply titled "Dog," a portrait of a very alert-looking wide-eyed animal, its fur vibrant with powder blue, red-orange, and violet, its royal blue shadow on the wall almost taking on a life of its own, stealing the show. I’m also partial to the several landscapes, the most abstract images in the exhibit, containing some of the richest color harmonies, and totally narrative-free.
Perhaps what’s most appealing to me about the current work of Lois Silver is its subversive quality. You think you know what’s going on, you think you’ve seen it before, but then it catches you unawares. It’s familiar and not familiar, comfortable but strange, like the woman in one of the pictures whose head, for no good reason, is sliding sideways off her body, cobra-like, inserting an other-worldly element into an otherwise ordinary scene — the kind of slap up the side of one’s head that makes us want to look at art in the first place.