Virginia Living Magazine, August 2007
It isn't every day that a contemporary artist is compared to such giants of 20th-century art as Modigliani, Gauguin, Fernand Leger, Diego Rivera and Milton Avery. But when Edward Lucie Smith - the noted British critic, exhibition curator and contemporary art author - wrote an introduction to Annette Rawlings' one-woman show at New York's Walter Wickiser Gallery, his references to those artists caused many in the art world to sit up and take notice.
Lucie-Smith went even further with his artistic praise for Rawlings. "When one looks at her work, one also sees the flat color areas and radical simplicication of forms characteristic of the late output of Matisse... And one sees an interest in the ...harsh mechanical lines that Roy Lictenstein borrowed from comic strips. What makes the paintings work is their very firm sense of design - the way in which the lines and flat color areas relate both to one another and to the surrounding areas of the composition. These paintings are calm, beautiful entities..."
A sense of calm helps not only to explain Rawlings' work, but also describes the artist herself - a warm and engaging woman with a delightful, almost childlike sense of humor and an even-keeled demeanor. Tall and attractive, she seems comfortable in her own skin, in harmony with her life and her work.
Rawlings, 64, has lived and worked for several years in the quiet town of Bridgewater, in the Shenandoah Valley. She describes Bridgewater as a "small and peaceful country town - an ideal setting for concentration and creativity." There, in the well-lit basement of a small redbrick house across the street from Bridgewater College, she paints her pictures on a daily eight-hour scheule, six or seven days a week - pictures that are shown in galleries from New York to Paris, from Miami to Geneva.
Surrounded by her paintings stacked against the walls, some complete, others in process, she works standing up, with her canvasses lying flat on a large oilcloth tabletop that bears traces of the rich and harmonious colors - layer upon layer of burnt umber, indigo, chrome yellow, vermilion - that she has used to produce countless pictures over the decades. It is a setting perfectly conductive to the kind of output - about 90 paintings a year - that gallery and patrons expect from a highly productive artist whose life is all about her art.
"I fell in love with Virginia, and Bridgewater in particular, when I visited a friend here a few years ago," she says. "I love the four seasons, the beauty of the Shenandoah, the relative proximity to such cultural centers as Washington, D.C., and New York compared to the relative isolation of Miami, and the opportunity to concentrate on my art. With each passing year here my production has increased. It's a wonderful place to live and work."
Rawlings, who is divorced and lives alone (her daughter received her Ph.D. in psychology in June), also expresses appreciation for the other activities and amenities available in the area - the cultural offerings at the college, the Shakespeare theater in nearby Staunton, concerts at various churches in the Valley, visiting Monticello and the Luray Caverns, motoring the Skyline Drive in autumn - all things she enjoys sharing with the many friends who frequently visit.
Born in Birmingham, Alabama, Rawlings lived in Miami from the age of 3 and is steeped in the fundamentals and history of art. Her training was formidable and began in 1959 at the Heidelberg Museum in Germany, when she first went to Europe as a teenager. It was there that she acquired her interest in art. "I loved the feeling the museum gave me," she recalls. "I was drawn there every day, and I would just sit there and wonder at the art that surrounded me. It was a spiritual experience. One day I noticed a sign for painting lessons, and that was the beginning."
She studied art history, the craft of art restoration and pre-Renaissance painting techniques as practiced by early Dutch and German painters. She copied Old Masters and learned brush techniques and the intricacies of color formulations. When she was still in her teens, both her parents died unexpectedly, and she was completely on her own.
Back in Florida, undaunted, she continued her education at the University of Miami, where she received a double degree in fine arts and art history, with a particular focus on the human form in life-drawing classes. She then went to Perugia, Italy, to study at a master's trade school, learning traditional methods for oil painting and egg tempera for painting frescoes and for grinding her own pigments. She later traveled throughout Europe, North Africa, Mexico, Central America and the Caribbean, all the while absorbing local cultures and developing her unique sense of color and design.
In 1972, Rawlings had her first one-person show and not long afterward was selected by DuPont to put her art on a line of ready-to-wear garments made from material the company manufactured. She also developed her own line of hand-painted clothing and tableware that appeared in such venues as the Dallas Museum of Art, the Miami Museum of Art and the International Center of Contempoary Art in Paris.
Her exploration of the female form, rendered in rich, saturated colors on a flat pictorial surface, began in the late 1960's. They often remind the viewer of landscapes "Everything in my art comes from the figure," she explains. "From the beginning, it was an artistic challenge to simplify the form into a few expressive lines and shapes, bridging the gap between realism and abstraction." Figures were posed in different positions, but faces showed only in profile.
Rawlings has always worked with live models, making numerous sketches at each session. She likes to start by deliberately putting the model in difficult positions in order to "tire them out, get them to relax. Once a bit of fatigue sets in, she says, the poses generally take on a more natural, relaxed feel, contributing to the sense of calm that she seeks to express in her paintings.
In the 1970s, the work became ever more abstract. By using drapery with her models, and by having the figure face away from the viewer, the pictures increasingly resembled undulating landscapes. She used a one-inch brush with a cross-hatching technique to build up eight to 10 thin layers of paint, thus creating large, smooth color planes devoid of surface effects, further simplifying the forms. She also worked to balance color tones between foreground and background to help create that single surface plane she was after, striving for compositions that were "simple, balanced, harmonious."
In the 1980s and 90s, Rawlings expanded her production to include ceramics, film and performance art, all the while working with oil paint on linen (her preferred surface). In some of her pictures, parts of the composition were rendered by the warm barley color of the unpainted linen itself. By 2000, the female forms began to appear facing away from the viewer, then facing the viewer directly, completing a cycle of side, back and front views.
Today, her explorations continue. Annette Rawlings may not yet be a household name -- like Matisse, Modigliani, Lichenstein and the others mentioned by Lucie-Smith in the Wickiser show introduction - but there's little doubt that her original and compelling work will find its way into the hearts and minds of an ever growing number of art patrons throughout the country and the world.