By Janet Daily
Gayle Crites has dark, very dark, brown eyes. They don’t dance, sparkle or twinkle. As she quotes from one of her favorite books, The Care of the Soul by Thomas Moore, her eyes demand that we see what she sees: “The soul lies midway between understanding and unconsciousness,” she reads, “and … its instrument is neither the mind nor the body, but imagination.” To Moore, the soul makes us human. To Crites, the soul creates art. “To be an artist,” she contends, “is to operate on the level of the soul. Art stems from the imagination centered in the soul.”
If life is a tapestry, Crites has woven the fragments of her existence into a whole and is now working on a life-saga entitled “Fine Art,” shaped by the disjointedness of her life. Her contemporaries seem unaware of any frays in the seam, however. They speak of her incredible energy, her wide range of interests and her curiosity. She’s not trapped by consistency but rather seems willing to try anything. As one artist puts it: “She’s always doing something new. She works like a fiend.”
As we view some of Crites’ landscapes, I am particularly taken by her latest venture using oils on paper. Her landscapes, she says, are more perceptual than emotional. “I’m an outsider looking in. I reach strictly for the abstract elements and simplify as if I were composing haiku. Some of the greatest paintings play off just a few colors a few values placed in the right way.” Ordinarily, a painting progresses from the general to the specific, from the outline to the details. But in her landscapes Crites stops at the outline, having no intention of re-creating every detail. She simplifies to the point of describing only the broad differences between objects, leaving the viewer with the impression of a basic grouping of lights and darks. “Oddly enough,” she muses, “when a painting is reduced to its essence, people react to it, saying, ‘That’s it, that’s the way the landscape is. You’ve really captured it.’”
Walking along the streets of Santa Fe, NM, Crites once noticed a home where everything was in shades of gray or white. Attracted to its loneliness, she produced Corbels. “I love the shape of the corbels and the triangle formed by light on the wall. The chair repeats the theme of the corbels, only upside down.”
From the landscape oils on paper, we progress to some examples of her monotypes. Printmaking, which she describes as attracting a select audience, “like the FM band on the radio,” is her first love. She is fascinated by its unpredictability, since “what prints is not necessarily what you painted.” And she is delighted with the demands of a monotype. “Details just won’t work. You can rely only on the boldness of your design.” In the monotype Search, she used the simplest of colors—purple, green and black to carry out her design. She chose to print the sky in yellow, the complement of the purple canyon. “Sometimes images just come out of my mind, as in the monotype titled Interior. It’s a simple image, but I played off the figure in tones of grayed green and rose.”
Surprisingly, Crites operates differently in her still lifes: Objects are more tightly rendered, and composition is more studied. We have arrived at another, deeper level of her imagination. “I design my still lifes differently than my landscapes,” she explains. “My interests are broader here. I not only see the pattern, I’m also fascinated with the objects themselves. And I paint only what has meaning for me. My grandmother loved to collect china teacups, so in Orchid Oasis, I used some of her china.”
For Crites, plotting a still life is similar to putting together a jigsaw puzzle. “I look hard at what I’m trying to paint. After a lot of squinting, I begin to see the shapes as abstract patterns. For instance, even though the orchid has a complicated shape, I painted the shapes around it. Composition is just a matter of putting the pieces together.” Crites is particularly pleased with the way the pieces melded in Orchid Oasis. “Your eye enters the painting at the upper left with the orchid, which leads you down through the painting to the teacup, the sugar bowl, its cover, then back to the spoon.” She never fears breaking the rules: “I like to crop objects at the edges of the canvas—a habit left over, I guess, from my days as an illustrator.” So in Orchid Oasis, she sliced off both the vase holding the orchid and the tip of the spoon.
As Crites speaks, she continually refers to the soft orchids and hard china. She is obviously fascinated by texture, and there are no tricks in her mastery of the subject. She knows that different textures pick up light differently; what she carefully observes, she translates. She uses strong, crisp highlights on the hard, brittle china and lets the light come through its translucent walls. In contrast, shadows play on the velvety orchid petals.
Mentioning how much she admires Edouard Vuillard, a member of the French Nabis group, Crites says that, like this symbolist painter, she believes that “life is lived in the gray tones…. He painted whole canvases with gray tones. That’s where the subtlety of any work takes place.” Like Vuillard, she doesn’t want a painting to be so spelled out that viewers can’t bring their own imaginations to it. She wants, or rather requires, her viewers to enter the painting with her, to wonder about the objects there, to share the mystery.
We turn, finally, to her largest paintings, which usually depict interior scenes. “I can’t do many in a year,” she says, “but when I do them, I put in everything I’ve got, technically and artistically. When you add figures to a painting, it presents an extra dimension. It automatically sets up questions: What is happening? What does the artist want to say?” We arrive, then, at the deepest level of her art. “After completing my first interior painting, I realized that I could always learn from others, but I could also make something of my own. I could finally enter a room and say ‘This is me.’ I felt that I had a discernible style.”
As we begin to look at these paintings, I notice that she often uses her children as subjects. Does this mean she is a “women’s artist”? For the first time, Crites bristles. “Some ‘women’s art’ is so saccharine with its sweet use of color that it’s the antithesis of everything I value in art. When I use my children, I want you to react to and feel the content of my work. I don’t want to produce some third-person interpretation of sentimentality.”
Crites cannot be accused of using sweet colors. Her interior paintings are incredibly vibrant, which, according to Crites, shows the influence of Pierre Bonnard, also a member of the Nabis painters who exhibited in the early 1890s. “Bonnard, like Vuillard, could be a clumsy draftsman. But he was an incredible colorist, using color for emotional impact. He knew how to use it to heighten the effect.”
The painting titled The Journey stands as a prototype of Crites’ interior paintings. For inspiration, she turned to her beloved Guatemala. “Guatemala is visually stimulating. The Indians still wear clothes reminiscent of their Mayan ancestors.” Her enthusiasm for Guatemala is matched by her attachment to pre-Columbian objects “the older, the better,” she says. “They have the richest surfaces and I’m fascinated by their history. What were they used for? Who used them? These objects are so mysterious.” In The Journey, Crites assembled a portrait of a Guatemalan woman in a huipil (ancient Mayan dress) and a pre-Columbian pot placed on a Guatemalan weaving, all arranged on a crude hand-carved chest with an Indonesian scarecrow lurking in the shadows. What she has actually created is a painting within a painting. In an unusual move, she made the portrait of the woman the focal point; the eye travels back and forth from the woman’s head to the objects outside of the portrait. To heighten interest, a leaf of the plant in the pot follows the outline of the woman’s shoulder, making her body seem to come out of the frame. The strong play of lights and darks, using the passionate reds and yellows of Guatemala, makes the painting even more striking.
In Indigenous Cultures (see page 8), Crites repeats one of the themes in The Journey by assembling a collection of Hispanic objects. But then she adds two children looking at one another, reflected in a mirror. “A surrealistic element,” she admits. “In reality, you wouldn’t see such a reflection. But every painting should have some element that activates the imagination.” Here again, Crites breaks a rule of formal composition by placing the focal point (the child with the light on his face) at the top edge of the painting. Then she manipulates the shadows to create the pattern she wants. By running the dark triangular shadow from the table to the floor, she leads the eye from the pot to the basket below.
At certain times of the year, when the setting sun gets close to the horizon, it shines directly into Crites’ home, producing extraordinarily long shadows. On one of those occasions, she noticed that the streaks of light fell directly on her son, who was playing the piano. Like Bonnard, she took the liberty of supercharging the drama with color. In The Hallway she emphasized what would normally be only hints of color, resulting in warm lights reflected onto the ceiling and cool shadows.
I mention to Crites that her paintings seem very lonely. “Yes, they are,” is her reply.
Photos courtesy the artist, Kent Galleries, Santa Fe, NM; Dassin Gallery, Los Angeles, CA; Merrill Gallery of Fine Art, Denver, CO; Bishop Gallery, Scottsdale, AZ; and Highlands Gallery, Breckenridge, CO.
Featured in June 1997