Angela Dufresne is perhaps best known as an allegorist, producing raucous, color-charged paintings in which quotations from cinema and art history jostle each other. Priapic satyrs and drunken bar rats mingle with movie stars in extravagant landscapes and chaotic interiors. Just as often as she invents such narrative fantasies, however, she indulges a taste for direct observation in the form of fresh, energetic portraits. This exhibition comprised thirty-one examples of this latter type of work, most depicting, at actual scale, members of the LGBTQ communities of artists, choreographers, musicians, curators, and writers that are her frequent inspiration. Dufresne executed all the paintings from life, in multiple sittings, during which she consulted the sitters on preferences for their own representation, engaging in a constant dialogue that served to enhance the images’ vividness. These people look as though they are listening, or about to speak.
The five earliest works, made between 2007 and 2009, resemble Dufresne’s narrative paintings in that figures materialize within seas of abstract marks and strokes, as in the work of Giacometti or Frank Auerbach. Artists David Humphrey and Leigh Ledare, for example, sit amid furnishings that toggle in and out of legibility. The majority of the portraits, however, place figures in empty expanses of brushy color, recalling paintings by Manet or Velázquez. Sometimes the color of the ground shifts only slightly from that of the figure’s clothing, the proximity of the hues making for an optical shimmer. In Jennifer Packer (2017), the neon chartreuse of the subject’s shirt is just close enough to the duller yellow of the background to produce a startling effect. In the masterful William E. Jones “and, Why Should I Care About This” (2017), the blues Jones wears are electrified by those of his surroundings, suggesting a charged atmosphere. Bearing an expression of intense listening on his face, he presses his thumbs together, as if expelling nervous energy. Fidgety hands and feet abound in these portraits, heightening the sense of immediacy.
Dufresne depicts her figures fully, positioning them away from the canvases’ edges, with generous margins of color around them. So although these people are as big as life and connect with us through their detailed expressions and gestures, they are also firmly situated within the universe of the painting—a divided allegiance, if you will, between reality and fantasy, material and invention. In the portrait Bradford Nordeen in the Orchard (2017), the subject, enveloped in a gestural landscape of green and yellow, twists around to speak, his ass crack showing. While this infelicitous detail is clearly meant to be funny, it is also plainly the result of his active engagement with his portraitist, whose vigorous brushstrokes intensify the sense of their energetic dialogue. Through such congruities of form and content, Dufresne’s world comes alive, allowing us to share in the collaborative spirit that animates her small, robust society.