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May 17 - June 21, 2008 at Lora Schlesinger Gallery, Santa Monica

by Jody Zellen

Ann Chamberlin creates evocative narratives that explore political, social and personal scenarios through an expressive yet exacting use of oil paint. Best known for small scale works, her painting size is dictated by the works’ content. For example a work from 2005, “Driving Backwards Downhill,” measures 54 x 16 inches. The idea of driving backwards downhill is echoed by the shape of the canvas.

Chamberlin recently received a Fulbright Grant to paint and teach painting at la Universidad de Antioquia and el Instituto de Bellas Artes in Medellin, Colombia. Many of the works in this exhibition were inspired by her travels and the stories she recorded about this experience. She states, “It’s a very narrative culture, just beginning to emerge from a terrible 50 year war, so I sat back with my eyes and ears peeled, gathering stories that ranged from the darkest violence to the fantastic and sweet.”

“El Tuerto (‘The One-Eyed Assassin’),” an 18x24 inch gouache on paper, was inspired, according to Chamberlin, by the story of El Tuerto, a one-eyed assassin from Anserma during La Violencia (when the conservatives killed the liberals). El Tuerto was given names of people to kill by the town’s priest. Chamberlin’s painting pictures a rural town square as seen from above. In the center is a park where a lone woman sits on a bench. The streets appear empty except for the lines of bullets that shoot across the composition emanating from the assassin’s gun in the lower left toward the victim in the upper right. The woman who sweeps the street and the man who leans on his car seem oblivious to the occurrence; only the woman seated on the park’s bench ducks and covers her head.

“The Beautiful Guillermo Ballesteros Went to Bogota and Never Thought of Rosita” was inspired by the story of Rosita who was obsessed with Guillermo Ballesteros, a beautiful boy from her town who sang. As the story goes, Rosita was constantly teased about her affections and never noticed by her love object. The painting is less about Rosita’s longing than about Guillermo’s desires to flee the town and make something of himself. In Chamberlin’s painting roses float through the composition, whose background is light pink with yellow bands that reference the sidewalk and the street. We see Guillermo Ballesteros alone in this empty landscape, suitcase in hand. He wears brown pants and an open white shirt. Painted seven times, each with a different thought floating above his head, Chamberlin makes reference to how our wishes and desires constantly mutate and change.

"El Tuerto ('The One-Eyed Assassin'),"
2008, gouache on paper, 18 x 24".

"Aplicaciones de los cuerpos
redondos (Uses of Round Objects),"
2008, oil on brass, 8 x 8".

"Ha, Ha, Ha, the Little
Dragonfly Girl," 2008.

"The Beautiful Guillermo Ballesteros
West to Bogota and Never
Thought of Rosita," 2008.

Hearing stories about people held prisoner and caged in basements prompted Chamberlln to explore the idea of captivity. In “The Basement,” light floods the image coming through barred windows. Two males sit in chairs on either side of the rays of light. Three steps lead us down into the composition. While Chamberlin’s figures do not appear to be victims, they are not engaged with one another. Their isolation reflects the barrenness of their surroundings.

“Eclipse” pictures a naked woman seated on the edge of a bed partially obscured by a diagram of the planets. Crafted to elicit compassion, this image is ambiguously hopeful and tragic. “Ha, Ha, Ha, the Little Dragonfly Girl” is based on the photographs of Pfc. Lynndie England from Abu Ghraib. This piece expresses the chilling absurdity of what went on there. A fairy with wings, the ‘dragonfly girl,’ follows the spiral of the composition, which appears to be a descending stairwell. The four-winged figure sports a hopeful (yet ironic) smile. The small rooms depicted in the spiral are cages, each holding a figure or two in orange. The works teases. It juxtaposes ideas of freedom and captivity.

Chamberlin’s narrative paintings are self contained entities that collectively tell a bigger story. The works in this exhibition were inspired by her experiences in Colombia, and together reflect the violence as well as serenity and camaraderie of that culture. This is consistent with her history as an artist. Chamberlin combines the topical with the universal, provoking us to reflect on the extremes of human existence.