“Tales” by Katherine Ace

On View in the Chan Gallery January 26 – May 20

Katherine Ace’s paintings perform a kind of magic, conjuring images before our eyes that transport us to hidden places within ourselves. Her paintings often allude to stories or myths, but retell these narratives with a personal, dream-like immediacy. The magic in Ace’s work lies is in creating illusionary realities, highly convincing in their verisimilitude, while embodying those images in the physical reality of paint and objects. Equally deft is her opening up in each work an imaginal space in which we rediscover a realm of unacknowledged emotions.

In her recent paintings, Ace has drawn upon the fairy tales of the Brothers Grimm, with all of their complex feelings and deep psychological content. She interprets these stories freely, creating a new range of imagery, while retaining the power of their dark, folk origins. The effect is both old and new, embedded in the psychic energy of archaic tropes, while revealing in them a sense of living reality.

In The Frog King, a young woman and a frog face each other, highlighted against a dark wood. We are witnesses to a silent moment of confrontation, one that will lead to violence, transformation, and love. In Little Red Cap, a re-visioning of Little Red Riding Hood, a girl sits before a sky of darkening clouds and a golden sunset. She presides serenely over a reclining wolf, and together they form a single unit, bound by the red cords of her cloak. In Six Swans, a woman sits in tree branches, between the evening sky and the stony ground. Surrounded by paper birds who represent her six brothers, she is determined to restore them to their human selves.

These paintings contain many of the elements which distinguish Ace’s recent paintings. There are beautifully painted passages of people and nature joined together, suspended in a timeless atmosphere. There is a sense of liminality, when action is stilled, and yet the world is about to change. And there is the recurring emphasis on the psychological moment, involving the agency of a range of characters in shaping their own destinies.

In Ace’s earlier work, she uses both figural paintings and still lifes to explore the intersection of the personal with the cosmic and the historical. In Constellations, the legs of young people, seen from above, surround a ground of pebbles and images from paintings – the Big Bang as an ever-renewing creation myth of art and family. In Self-Portrait Somewhere Else, autobiography becomes a still life strewn with draped cloth and newspapers, paintings and statuary, brushes and the artist’s hand holding a pair of scissors, ready to create the next work.

The current body of work was done over the past decade, with many of the paintings from the last two years. The recent work focuses on images from the fairy tales of the Brothers Grimm. The kingdom of these stories is the psyche, and there the challenges of one’s inner life are dramatically explored. Many of the tales concern a life passage where one part of the psyche is not valued, or a where a crisis awaits resolution, personified by the protagonist and his or her journey.

The artist is captivated by how the Grimms’ stories embody the complex issues that we all experience intimately: the dualities of life and death, humor and tragedy, beauty and corruption. In the fairy tales she is drawn to dark feelings, the process of transformation, and the fire beneath the outward reserve that we usually present to the world.

In the earlier paintings, still lifes serve as metaphorical settings in which to  examine questions of desire, mortality, and our place in the cosmos. A number of these paintings bring together both autobiographical and art historical images, and a range of objects, textiles, and papers.

Creating the paintings is a slow yet dynamic process. The artist begins with an image in mind but not clear idea about how it will be manifested. Sometimes a study is done, but often she just starts a drawing or painting and whatever comes is developed, and may be changed many times. The imagery is derived from the imagination and from memory and, as well as myth and art. In this work there is a strong interaction between the intuitive images, the sensual and physical handling of the paint, and the spirit of the moment.

Katherine Ace was born in Chicago in 1953, and fell in love with oil paint at the age of 10 at a summer children’s class at the Art Institute of Chicago. She began painting in oils regularly at the age of 14, and through high school had a small space in the basement of her home where she painted several hours a day. Ace went on to study art at Knox College in Galesburg, Illinois, graduating in 1975.

After college Ace had a series of art-related jobs started in Boston and moving west – copying Old Masters paintings, working as a potter, doing graphics work, illustrating text books, and serving as a quick sketch artist in casinos in New Orleans and Reno, Nevada. In January 1990 Ace moved to Portland, Oregon where she has lived ever since, focusing on her own poetic paintings, which have been shown extensively across the country.

Ace’s paintings in the early 1990s were open-ended allegories, employing images of the figure, both invented and quoted, and complex, autobiographical still lifes. The figures are often seen in contact with natural forms including flowers and fish, a recurrent symbol in Ace’s work, connoting both male and female, and the unconscious. The still lifes employed an array of printed papers, textiles, flora and fauna, food, weapons, and toys. In the early 2000s, the artist began painting tree stumps, heaps of cloth, and stacks of paper.

Ace has written of her interest in “the forms of cultural truths, myths, objects and histories that reach back into our collective and personal pasts.” In the 1990s her paintings were informed by reading Marie Louise von Franz’s lectures on Jungian interpretations of fairy tales. In 2000 Ace began a series of paintings using the Odyssey, Cupid and Psyche, and creation myths. The current work is based on Grimms’ fairy tales including such well-known stories as Cinderella and Snow White, as well as less familiar narratives.

While representational images are central to Ace’s work, abstraction is a motivating force, as is her engagement with the materials. She sculpts the surface with her fingers, a palette knife, and other tools. She incorporates a wide range of objects into the surface,  including insects, feathers, beans, tacks, glass, and small figures. Ace uses both oil and alkyd paint, and has developed a technique of embedding paper into paper into alkyd, fusing it to the surface.

Ace’s solo shows since 1992 include Froelick Gallery, Portland; Woodside/Braseth Gallery, Seattle; Elmhurst Art Museum, Elmhurst, IL; Ellen Noel Art Museum, Odessa, TX; Portland State University, Portland, OR; Cornish College of the Arts, Seattle; Zolla/Lieberman Gallery, Chicago (2014); and Rockford Art Museum, Rockford, IL (2014); Ace’s group exhibitions include those at the Tacoma Art Museum, Whatcom Museum, Bellingham, WA; Jordan Schnitzer Museum, Eugene, OR; and Hoyt Institute of Fine Arts, New Castle, PA.

Exhibition organized through Katharine T. Carter and Associates