Susan Hall creates paintings of contemplative figures that are enhanced by a Caravaggio-like lighting effect. While the single, internal lighting source provides drama, the contrast is softened via lacy or arabesque patterns that veil her subjects. The overall effect is ghostly, as girls, young women, and animals emerge from behind shrouded motifs. When viewing Hall’s work, there are numerous art historical references, from the eye-dazzling geometry of Islamic art to the psychological isolation of Andrew Wyeth’s paintings.
She begins her process by priming a birch panel. She likes to use her hands when applying the gesso because this starts to free her mind from the anxieties of the beginning. At this point, she has a good idea where she will place the various pieces of lace that will ultimately result in creating what has become her signature background. The lace is pressed into the wet gesso and allowed to dry. In the next steps, she painstakingly removes the lace, which has now left its impression on the surface, and she begins to brush on the first motions of color. The figure is the last element in the process.
When Hall is at her very best, her figures appear turned away from, perhaps indifferent to, the viewer; she sometimes takes away all reference to place or landscape and suspends the forms in the softened lace patterns. A young girl sits, looking calmly, almost meditatively, into a void of texture and light. The pose and the atmosphere suggest that this girl’s thoughts are not of the everyday and common variety; rather she seems to contemplate deeper, more profound issues and aspects of the human condition, the specifics of which remain unknown but compelling. In fact, this uncertainty of meaning is what enables us to return again and again to the subject of Hall’s paintings, each time renewing our interest in the artist’s intention, drawn to the mysteries and elusive sensations she has left us to deliberate.
When Hall paints animals, we feel her sense of reverence for all living things; her respect for something sacred in the balance of nature and all its intricate workings. When she paints a stag in a clearing, bending to drink from the stream, she creates the effect that we, the viewer, have just happened on this delicate moment and we are quieted by the fear that this beautiful, wild creature will bolt off into the thicket. She seems to say, “Look at this amazing moment you have just discovered: Respect the stillness and treasure it.” Unlike Hall’s human figures, her animals often benefit from being turned toward us, their eyes fixed on us as symbols of nature and its solemn challenge to man’s interruptions and intrusions into the delicate balance of things.
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