These paintings, Ruth Nygard’s larger-than-life-sized portraits, depict momentary gestures, energetic dispersions of emotion, communicative hands. The painted figures are constructed through the layering of linear marks; conglomerating and dissolving. The dynamism of the moment is paused in pictorial stillness. These paintings are given names rather than titles. There is an intimacy in Nygard’s act of naming that is in synchrony with her portrayal of intimate unguarded moments. The models for these portraits are NOT models. They are not posed or self-conscious. Instead, the faces are mid-conversation, mid-gesture, an emphatic instant captured, relaying a tale; others are holding back, a momentary withdrawal, a pause in mid-thought. The ephemeral moment is transcribed to the stasis of the painters’ plane, yet filled with expressive motion.
In order to reach an understanding of how this duality is possible —how motion can be stilled, and emotion can communicate out of that stillness— it is useful to consider the particular psychology of the painted portrait. The Mask and the Face, E.H. Gombrich’s essay examining portraiture, considers the meaningful creation of a “likeness.” He notes that the living face is in perpetual movement; motion is the countenance’s method of disclosure. The portrait painter must invent compensatory measures for expressive movement, in order to reveal an emotional state, express character, or divulge a given mindset. There is the further challenge of distinguishing that which is expressive, as opposed to the unchanging character of the visage. There is something consistent in a face, though it changes throughout time. It is this indefinable steadfastness which allows a person to recognize baby pictures of an older friend, or go long periods of time without seeing a loved one, and still instantly identify them upon the next meeting.
Ruth Nygard approaches these puzzles of portraiture by taking a distinct stance. Rather than a generalized character study, the artist hones in upon the fleeting, the internalized flash. It is only through capture upon the canvas that these moments can be observed at all. At the end of his essay, Gombrich makes a compelling argument that portraiture is experienced by the body in a tactile manner. Just as the listener is compelled to dance when hearing music, observation of the emotive face creates a physical response. The justification for this assertion is the example of a baby learning to smile. We don’t learn how to smile by looking in the mirror and observing the relationship between moving muscles and the visual results. Instead we respond to a smile with a smile. Something in our body responds in sympathetic action. By using an ecstatic build up of line, and layers of contrasting colours, Ruth Nygard creates visual vibration that consummates the expected motion of communication. She creates a fibrillating space where fleeting emotions can be regarded in suspension, and the observer can respond in a visceral sympathy.
- Michelle Weinstein
Gombrich, E.H. Art,Perception, and Reality . “The Mask and the Face.” Johns Hopkins University Press, 1972,