Reflections on Strata: New Work by Gail Watkins
Gail Watkins, Color Canyon (2016)
Written by Janice F. Booth
Gail Hillow Watkins’s newest series of mixed media paintings, “Strata,” explores movement in simple, almost primitive terms. The artist applies the technique she has been exploring for a decade, layering and incising paint, paper, and various other material, but her focus now is on a narrative of motion, not a static uncovering, as in the 2013 series “Comics & Chromosomes.” In some of these new works, simple forms leap and gyrate across the canvas bathed in color bands. The strata, seen together, become an undulating whole -- a dance troupe or a junkanoo parade.
With these new paintings, the viewer stands, a rapt observer, as the sands shift, light shimmers, and a curious sense of movement and motion begins. Since the lines of movement are contained in color bands, the dancing lines and the movement they suggest read like a choreographer’s notations.
Watkins’s kinetic forms evoke Henri Matisse’s work. Consider Matisse’s sinuous paintings, “Dance II,” (1909-10) and “The Dance” (1932-33). In the earlier work, lines interconnect to create a sense of motion; colors, rich and deep, bathe the dancers in blue and coral. After twenty years of seeing and simplifying line and form, Matisse had eliminated all but the beauty of shapes against color to convey fluid motion.
Henri Matisse, Dance II (1909-10) and The Dance (1932-33)
Some of the works in “Strata” have a Caribbean flavor, perhaps inspired by Watkins’s travels in Cuba. Titles reflect Watkins’s Cuban memories -- “The Pink House,” “Malecon,” and “The Gate.”
Inspiration for “The Pink House,” 2014, was the ubiquitous, tabby shell, stucco houses embedded with coquina shells seen everywhere in southern Florida and the Caribbean Islands. In this painting, bands of auburn, amaranth and cerise and carnelian reds, etched with shapes, bustle and tumble through and between the color bands, like figures in an apartment building, each with its own story and vitality. The colors and motion are playful rather than chaotic.
Gail Watkins, Malecon (2016) Gail Watkins, Enlargement from Pink House (2014)
“Malecon,” 2016, seems a subtle rainbow of blues, pink, and bronze cascading down the canvas. A lingering gaze rewards the viewer -- curving, arcing, reaching figures emerge from the bands of color, appearing as though from behind a curtain or from beneath the sea. In reality, the Malecon is an elegant esplanade in Havana with the sea’s tidal rhythms on one side, the ebb and flow of pedestrians and vehicles along the avenue. The indigo and Turkish blue bands along the bottom of the painting suggest the Caribbean Sea, while along the top of the canvas striae incised into the blue band suggest Havana’s decorative grillwork against the blue sky.
Gail Watkins, The Gate (2016)
As we stand before the painting “The Gate,” 2016, we see a square of deep auburn banded with cornflower blue. The work is tranquil, a gate unused. “I saw a rusty gate at the entrance to a Havana Garden. It stuck with me – that lovely rust, the wild garden behind the gate, and always the sea and sky,”
Watkins revisits that sense of discovery from her “Chromosomes…” series with “Genome Fresco,” 2016. But what is uncovered in this painting records not lost life-forms, but instead, some grand, civic event. Celebrants, dancers, participants all march and parade past the viewer, bearing up bands of vermillion and sapphire, rivers of color and ambiguous formations. The painting is playful and celebratory.
Gail Watkins, Genuine Fresco (2016)
Recently, Watkins’s works have eschewed the sensual pleasures of the Caribbean. “Colour Canyon” and “Aleppo,” emerge from Watkins’s personal heritage and her response as an artist to the terrible war and suffering ongoing in the Middle East. Watkins’s great-grandparents grew up in Aleppo, Syria, and left the city as newlyweds, settling in northern Lebanon. The terrible images of death and ruin appearing nightly in newscasts and front pages across the world haunt us all, but evoke a particular pathos for Watkins. “Had they [her great-grandparents], as children, lived on those decimated streets? How did they feel as immigrants” What is my link to their past?”
Movement, mystery, division come together in Watkins’s “Colour Canyon,” 2016, inspired by the artist’s trip to the Sinai Peninsula tracing part of her heritage. The muted golds, roses, and blues are separate forces, layered and resting one on another. Some of the bands reveal flowing, bulbous forms, some reveal very little. The unified painting suggests little motion, but a certain brooding potential.
Gail Watkins, Aleppo (2017)
“Aleppo,” 2017, is in stark contrast to most of the other pieces in this series. It is raw and still, dull gray and dusty tan, a band at the top the color of dried blood. And, on a ragged edge, a scrap of Persian blue, evoking a torn curtain or abandoned garment. Texture is central to this work; jagged, cracked, pockmarked. There is no mistaking the visual impact – even without the work’s title.
Watkins’ work has, for the last decade, focused on uncovering what is hidden. Now, the work seems to step out into the light, conveying joy or suffering. There is no neutrality. What is revealed demands our attention.
Janice F. Booth is the author of Crofton: Images of America and has written for local, regional and national publications including What’s Up? Publications, American Artist, the Wildlife Art Journal, BizPeake Journal, and Lancaster Farming. Janice is an adjunct professor of English and Communications at Anne Arundel Community College, Arnold, Maryland, and has been an educator for over 40 years. She has a Master of Arts Degree from Wayne State University. Additionally. She can be contacted by email at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read her blog at www.open-line.org