“My work has always been a tribute to all the hard-working women in my life,” says Kelly Reemtsen. The artist (previously), who lives and works between Los Angeles and London, has spent the last decade producing a subversive body of work devoted to exploring gender, its constructs, and real-world impacts, from wage gaps to the continual rollback of reproductive rights. Her practice spans printmaking, sculpture, and painting and juxtaposes visual markings of femininity with objects associated with masculinity. Each piece portrays an anonymous woman dressed in a tulle skirt, patent pumps, and glitzy jewelry grasping a chainsaw or shovel in an easy, nonchalant manner.
In recent years, Reemtsen has gravitated toward oval canvases evocative of traditional portraiture, in addition to pedestals and ladders that elevate her subjects. “Are the women in my paintings trying to break through the glass ceilings or just escaping the current situation? I think most women are doing one or both at all times, consciously or not,” she shares. A series of chainsaw sculptures painted with vibrant, playful colors augments the artist’s broader questions concerning how “the tools available to us shape who we are and who we want to be. I find using tools– whether a printmaking press, a chainsaw, makeup, or anything else– to be incredibly empowering as a vehicle for initiating change.”
A 10-year survey of Reemtsen’s work will be on view at albertz benda’s Los Angeles gallery this May, and she also has pieces in a group exhibition opening on April 21 in London and in August at Galeri Oxholm in Copenhagen. Explore a larger collection of her paintings and sculptures on her site and Instagram.
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In his sensitive, introspective portraits, Ghanaian artist Annan Affotey (previously) sharpens the contrast between soul and appearance. His works are large in scale and rich with texture, and he often sets figures against solid, monochromatic backdrops with visible brushstrokes. Similar to artist Otis Kwame Kye Quaicoe, Affotey renders his subjects’ skin in shades of gray and dresses them in vibrant garments and patterned accessories. The distinctions in color and fabric coincide with the figures’ facial expressions and gestures, all of which the artist uses as a prompt. He says:
The first assumptions made about people are based on sight. So things like skin colour, clothing, accessories, background, setting, and pose dictate emotion. There’s no guarantee those things match the character underneath. We’re often identified by what we’re compared to (or against). My work is a social commentary on this, asking the viewer to take a second look at what they read from my portraits and why.
Using a mix of acrylic and charcoal, Affotey also continues his signature red eyes, which reference his experience of being questioned about his lifestyle when he moved to the U.S. Now more bold, the recurring feature ranges from subtle halos around pupils to bright washes of pigment that spread across the sclera.
Some of Affotey’s figurative pieces are on view at both Arushi Gallery in Los Angeles and PM/AM in London through mid-March, and you can find more on Instagram. He also has two residencies slated in 2022, which will culminate in exhibitions in Saint Paul de Vence, France, opening on May 1 and another in mid-October in London.
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To create his thick, abstract portraits, Chicago-based artist Jose Lerma trades his brush for hefty, commercial brooms that follow the lines of preliminary sketches. “The process of these paintings is laborious. I make my own paint and fabricate my supports. The material is heavy and unwieldy,” he tells Colossal. “It is done in one shot because it dries very fast, so there is a minimal margin for mistakes.”
Lerma’s impasto works shown here have evolved from his original series of Paint Portraits, which revealed the general outline of a figure without any distinctive details. Wide swaths trace the length of the subject’s hair or neck, leaving ridges around the perimeter and a solid gob of pigment at the end of each stroke. His forward-facing portraits tend to split the figure in half by using complementary shades of the same color to mirror each side of a face.
With a background in social sciences, history, and law, much of Lerma’s earlier pieces revolved around translating research into absurd, childlike installations and more immersive projects. “In recent works, maybe due to returning to my home in Puerto Rico and a much more relaxed non-academic setting, I have eliminated my reliance on history and research and now concentrate on just making portraits,” he shares. “It’s an approachable, tactile, and disarming aesthetic, but the absurdity remains perhaps in the excessive materiality.”
Now, Lerma “works in reverse” and begins with a specific image that he reduces to the most minimal markings. “It’s a large work painted in the manner of a small work, and I think that has the psychological effect of making the viewer feel small, more like a child,” he says.
Living and working between Puerto Rico and Chicago, where he teaches at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, Lerma currently has paintings on view in a number of shows: he’s at Yusto/Giner in Málaga through March 24 and part of the traveling LatinXAmerican exhibition. In April, he’ll be showing with Nino Mier Gallery at Expo Chicago and in May at Galeria Diablo Rosso in Panama. Until then, see more of his works on Instagram.
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Chinese artist Li Songsong (previously) obscures portraits and wider landscapes with thick dabs of oil paint. His textured, impasto works are based on found photographs or imagined scenes, and each conveys a narrative tied to ordinary moments or a broader shared history. Varying the extent of distortion in every piece, Songsong tells Colossal that interrogating personal identity is at the center of his practice. The “cultural and historical aspects are related to China, and the language and expressions are my own,” he explains.
Songsong’s recent works include a tender scene with an officer and his dog, a portrait of a hopeful pilot, and a panoramic shot featuring a crowd with hundreds of anonymous faces. The richly layered pieces speak to the haziness and fragmentary nature of memories and stories, especially those interpreted from a distance, and come into focus when viewed farther back with a squint.
Based in Beijing, Songsong is currently working on a new series of works, which you can follow on his site.
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To capture the depth of an enchanting river alcove or bucolic landscape, Russian artist Anastasia Trusova works in what she calls “textured graphic impressionism,” a unique style that expresses emotion through detail and volume. She uses a combination of palette knives and brushes to deftly layer acrylic paints into dreamy scenes: heavy impasto forms lush foliage, coiled lines shape thick clouds, and an array of smaller dabs become fields of wildflowers. “I don’t think about the rules. I paint as I feel. I add volume to highlight and emphasize something or to show something that is closer,” she says.
Trusova’s use of color is bold and often bright, and she tends to reach for a kaleidoscopic palette that makes sunsets or a river’s reflection appear fantastical. These aesthetic choices are a direct result of her studies at both the Moscow Artscool and later Moscow State Textile University, where she learned about the physics of color and how certain applications and contexts affect perceptions. “For example, the same red shade will look differently when surrounded by light green or dark blue. There we broadened our horizons, helped us fall in love with the most incredible combinations,” the Belgium-based artist says.
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Annan Affotey has an affinity for bold, bright colors that set his subjects apart from the negative space framing their figures. Through gestural strokes that sweep across the canvas, the Ghanaian artist renders intimate portraits of his friends, family members, and the occasional public figure who, through distinctly red eyes, look directly at the viewer, a decision that’s both aesthetic and cultural.
“When I moved to the U.S. from Ghana, I was often questioned why my eyes were red and whether it meant I hadn’t slept or was doing drugs, neither of which was true. And it became a symbol for misinterpreted identities,” he says. That experience was complicated further by cultural expectations, which Affotey explains to Colossal:
I want the subject to have a direct conversation with the viewer, something I couldn’t do myself a few years ago. I am a shy person and when I first moved to the United States I would often look down when talking with people. In Ghana, looking down indicates shyness or respect. After being in the U.S. for a while, I finally came out of my shell and became more accustomed to looking people directly in the eye.
Currently living and working in Oxford, the artist prefers to surround his subjects with impasto strokes because of the liveliness they generate beyond the figures’ expressions. “I use textures in my paintings for several reasons. One reason is to portray energy or emotion centered around my subject,” he says. “I (also) use many textures so that people who can’t see will still have the opportunity to feel the canvas, brush strokes and feel a story from that.”
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