London Lantern

Putting the Spotlight on London

Twenty American Faces and Virginia Woolf

01/01/2008, By

Reader Rating: 2.8 from 1266 votes

“Her face told her entire story to me, and that’s what attracted me…[these are] people who have overcome hardship, people who have enormous faith…I’ve seen faith - I know this sounds naive, but I think that’s the key to life. You see life running over people the way glaciers move over continents, scratching their experiences into the geography of each face. I know every one of these sitters well, and every wrinkle and expression talks to me”.

Whether Shelley Cassidy paints a mosaic of individual faces within an active street scene, or an essay in oils of an individual , Cassidy is primarily a story teller. There are the little stories to be conjectured from her busy narratives of public life; private stories to be found in the eyes and wrinkles of her sitters. Depending on the magnitude of her lens, different tales and truths emerge.

First drawn to LA from London by the dream of working for Disney, formed when she was a cartoon-loving child of the Sixties, a chance invitation to participate on a mural set her on that course for several years.

Macro-observation was at its height with her large scale murals for Los Angeles International Airport and Sony Pictures and Paramount Studios, winning her both public and private commissions which turned various buildings in her adopted home of LA into landmarks. Close to the tradition of Diego Rivera in her fusion of local elements and traditions with her own burgeoning style, her focus slipped suddenly down to the intimate. Cassidy credits this to her switch from acrylic to oils. The difference between the media for her was like “night and day…[oils] are more unforgiving, more honest. You can’t hide as much with acrylic…there’s less of an ‘open’ period, much more of an open time to blend, sculpt and meet a face”.

Less a snapshot, more of a teasing-out of a life story, Cassidy developed close ties with many of her subjects during their translation to oil. Rather like Wilde’s “Dorian Grey”, the persona projected onto canvas, now equipped with its new external existence, often developed a close tie of its own with the sitter.

Influences she now credits are Lucian Freud and Alice Neel, the American portraitist, Ed Hopper, for his cinematographic handling of light and his painting’s eerie sense of beckoning the viewer into evolving a movie still into real-time, unfolding unseen into an unknown plot personal to each voyeur. From widescreen tales of urban living, Cassidy panned in for intense psychological studies. Yet, now, she is planning to expand the view again.

“Now I’m starting to incorporate some of the backgrounds in a much more organic way. I’d like it to be a narrative, that you look into someone’s life. They’re leaner, I’d like them to be a narrative where you look at a private person, presenting their public face to the world and happy for that to be reinterpreted, then see what lies between that gap.

An example of this new approach is ‘Distance’, a couple framed by a window but physically and mentally facing away from each other. One looks out, one looks in. Their sad domestic drama is being spied upon by the viewer in a manner akin that of Hitchcock’s “Rear Window”.

“How many relationships are that - he’s pouring a drink for himself. And they‘re so far away from each other - that look in her face, you can see how unhappy she is. And he’s not interested, he’s too far away. It’s about a relationship, be it a marriage or whatever but it‘s a slow death. What she‘s really watching is the unravelling of her life…It’s about the idea of when you’re completely alone. A lot of these are about windows and frames”.

For a portraitist whose interest in art derived from her love of animation, it is not surprising to see how Cassidy’s career has spanned such titanic changes in focus. Her move away from the crowd shot and the epic to the intimate conversational style of her portraits in this exhibition, the parallel action of “Distance”, a picture within a picture, is indicative of perhaps why the story-telling culture of her adopted LA has such a hold over her work. This is the cut and paste of personal experiences and private pain, brought into the realm of private faces braving the public glance.

5th February to March 1st
Fairfax Gallery
5 Park Walk
London SW10 0AJ
+44 (0)20 7751 4477

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