At Traver Gallery, Gregory Grenon and Mary Josephson draw on ancient techniques — like Coptic mosaics — to create portraits of women who are strong and enigmatic.
Portland artist Mary Josephson’s “Hero of Love” (embroidery on felt) is on display at the Traver Gallery. (REBEKAH-JOHNSON-PHOTOGRAPHY-20111)
Portland artist Gregory Grenon’s “Woman Received” (oil on glass) is a part of an exhibit that concentrates on close-ups of women. (REBEKAH-JOHNSON-PHOTOGRAPHY-2011)
Two Portland artists who fall squarely into this expressive-portrait tradition are showing side-by-side this month at Traver Gallery, encouraging viewers to draw their own compare-and-contrast conclusions. Never mind that the two, Gregory Grenon and Mary Josephson, are married; who said the art world wasn’t full of interesting back stories?
Josephson and Grenon are painters who happen to use glass in their work, making them a logical fit for Traver, which usually specializes in glass art of the sculptural variety.
In their paintings, the two artists concentrate on close-ups of attractive young women. Josephson, who is more diverse in composition and approach, deploys everything from embroidery and mosaic to painted ceramics; Grenon’s coarsely rendered, slightly awkward women are portrayed in his trademark fashion — oil on the backs of glass panels.
And where Grenon’s subjects present an attitude and style that is of the moment, Josephson’s women occupy a complicated historical limbo, drawing from earlier artistic models.
Take “Truth Cannot Be Taught” (glass tile on wood), one of the strongest images in her show.
A glass-mosaic rendering of a striking, dark-haired young woman wearing a floral headdress, the piece recalls Egyptian mummy portraits and early Christian mosaics — artworks that give us some of our oldest two-dimensional representations of feminine assertiveness and power. But Josephson puts her own spin on traditional craft with the highly idiosyncratic way she deploys her tiny glass tiles, building a surface with a much rougher topography of colored hills and canyons than is apparent from a distance.
“Truth” benefits from a tension between the realism of the underlying image and the very nonliteral way it is actually built: the presentation of personal identity as a patchwork of layers and contradictions.
Grenon’s women are much more straightforward in their portrayal and their aspect, stripped of most adornment and setting, gazing directly at the viewer. The woman in “Every Night Otherwise” (oil on glass) appraises us with a direct, thoughtful gaze, and the artist provides few clues about her mood or background — like most of his characters, she could be taken from the pages of Facebook or an album cover.
The energy in Grenon’s work comes from a stylistic combination of clunkiness and sophistication, and the intentional mismatch between what’s drawn and what’s painted. The features — added first, as his process involves doing everything “backward” to normal painting — are drawn with spiky line work that purposely overdoes the eyelashes and flattens the nose. The skin tones, added next, are pale and blotchy, enlivened with unblended patches of bright, unreal colors, here yellow and blue, elsewhere red and violet, like makeup put on and then forgotten; the hair is a mop. But the overall effect is of a person solidly and confidently present, contradictory and enigmatic as she is.
Not all of the works are successful. Grenon is experimenting with complicated textures of glass, where the women are all but lost in the shuffle; some of Josephson’s portraits also get buried in the materials used to create them.
But we never lose interest, and connecting with these portraits of strangers is an engrossing activity.
Mary Josephson’s “Truth Cannot Be Taught” (glass tile on wood) recalls both Egyptian mummy portraits and early Christian mosaics — artworks that give us some of our oldest two-dimensional representations of feminine assertiveness and power.
Gregory Grenon provides few clues about the mood or background of the woman featured in “Every Night Otherwise” (oil on glass). (REBEKAH-JOHNSON-PHOTOGRAPHY-2011)