Deeper Than a Likeness

Figurative artworks are compelling because they reflect the world. Portraits take the idea of reflection/presentation into the land of specificity, presenting a captured image of a person. With time, that can transition into a reflection of a time and place—just think how evocative Leonardo da Vinci’s Lady with an Ermine is, and what it communicates to viewers of 15th-century Italy.

These are just some of the things I find myself thinking about as I look at J. Adam McGalliard’s works. A suite of five paintings from the artist’s ongoing Projections series are shown at Southlight Gallery as a part of the group exhibit, Semblance: An Evaluation of Psyches.

“I went to [grad school] thinking I knew how to paint, and I learned I had no idea what I was doing,” said McGalliard with a laugh. He attended the “boot camp” New York Academy of Art, which, the artist explained, is modeled after the French Academy. That meant (and still means, one presumes) he’d spend entire seasons of his life rendering cones, cubes and eggs in an attempt to understand the manner in which light hits and defines an object. “I had to relearn everything, which is what they kind of pride themselves on doing,” he said.

The artist attended the Academy because of his deep interest in the human form and in ideas of narrative and story-telling. In fact, he said he’s “winding up” the Projections series (though new ideas keep creeping in) and is working on two series: one based around Joseph Campbell’s idea of “the hero’s journey” and another exploring Jungian theories of the psyche as manifested by mandala-like forms. The Jung-influenced project “is a series of kaleidoscopes with still life objects and design elements. It’s very much like a portrait of someone’s ego or about a larger consciousness.”

The other, myth-based works, he explained, are “figures in landscapes, and the idea I am going for is not just to be stuck in illustrating, say, the myth of Atlas … Because it is one thing to know that story, but what I want to do is [ask]: ‘What am I going through in my life and how can I put that into a symbolic representation?’ And then figure out: ‘What are the monsters I need to make visible so I can figure out how to defeat them and then move on?’”

He says this approach helps him conceptualize a problem, and then move forward. He also cites it as an effective tool in his teaching career (he teaches at a Title 1 school in Jacksonville).

“I have a group of students who have a lot of struggles, who I can very much sympathize or empathize with,” he said. “So I kind of imagine [their challenges] as physical manifestations. It makes it easier to say ‘OK, that’s how you slay that dragon.’ You make it concrete. And I think that’s the purpose of myths and religion, or psychology and philosophy … That’s why those myths are there.”

He added that in his class, his students are encouraged to work through their emotions: “It’s a little like art therapy.”

Though we were talking about works he has in process, the works on display in Semblance foreshadow the multiple realities he is moving toward. The two self-portraits Piñata and House Divided both make use of a projection technique that brings to mind cinematic compositions. They are layered and luminous, making use of color and symbols in a matter that feels enigmatic yet familiar. Piñata shows the viewer a close-cropped rendering of the artist, eyes askance, as he looks into the distance. Bright, candy-colored light plays across the left side (right to viewers) of his face, and even without the title, the piece communicates a feeling of disconnection or personal conflict. However, with Piñata we are granted a glimpse of the buffeting and tumult the artist felt when the work was painted—as he was winding up his time in New York City. “I imagined I’d never leave […] but I knew I’d weather the storm,” he said.

Contrasted with paintings like Use Your Words I and Use Your Words II, the self-portraiture feels like an almost post-apocalyptic rendering of his soul. Use Your Words II shows a three-quarter view of a young woman who is not engaging the viewer with her eyes or her body. Projected in “kidnapped” font, that is to say individual letters cut from magazines and newspapers, are seven rows of text, most of which are blurred, shifted or cut off, making the message very hard to read. The only legible phrase is “You wouldn’t get,” underscoring the woman’s inaccessibility.

McGalliard explained that in these figurative works, he is thinking about the Jungian concepts of “introjection” and “projection.” Loosely, introjection is “my idea of a person … They might remind me of someone I know or knew … so in a way it’s less about them, specifically.” Classic projection is the act of identifying the traits of oneself in another person. In this version, they represent the artist’s ideas of the sitter, and are also tied to the legacy of an artist like Hans Holbein the Younger. Holbein (and many other artists of the Renaissance) would often provide clues to the personality and station of his sitter through dress and objects.

“They are portraits, but it’s not so much about that. The primary focus is really getting done to the layer of larger human consciousness/human condition … trying to go deeper than a likeness. I am trying to figure out something I can’t quite put my finger on.”