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Senior Class

Evocative Portraits of the Aged Highlight Linden Show

In works such as "He only did what he had to do, and now hes growing old" (left) and "Pink Nightgown," Nancy Linden portrays the elderly with sympathy but no sentimentality.

By Mike Giuliano | Posted 8/1/2001

Other Summers

Nancy Linden

Craig Flinner Contemporary Gallery through Aug. 31

Nancy Linden doesn't restrict herself to painting portraits of old people, but her exhibit at Craig Flinner Contemporary Gallery, Other Summers, makes its strongest impression with pictures of folks in the winter of their lives.

Her focus isn't a common one for an artist. Senior citizens, while a demographic powerhouse, aren't depicted very often in contemporary portraits. Young to middle-aged artists tend to fixate on new trends and young models.

Linden manages to present her subjects in a sympathetic light without indulging in the sentimental clichés attached to the golden years. If anything, she gives us worn-out people sitting alone and looking off in a melancholic way. Most of them seem as if they're sifting through memories and waiting around for death. They're dignified, but not prettied up.

Linden's austere sympathy finds its most powerful expression in "All the voices you have known at all the kitchen tables," which astutely combines charcoal, pastel, and collaged newspapers. The charcoal-drawn old woman seated in a chair is gaunt and nearly ghostly. Although the dirty-white abstract zone to her left and the black zone under her feet emphasize her isolation, the area to her right is filled with collaged pages from a 1949 newspaper, reminding you that yesterday's news was today's news in her youth.

One wouldn't want to push too far in comparing the old lady in "All the voices" to Whistler's mother, but Linden's somber palette, schematic division of pictorial space, and unsentimental portrait recall James Whistler's iconic 1871 portrait of his mom. By adding newspapers to such a spare scene, Linden suggests the life of someone whose daily concerns once revolved around news, gossip, and department store sales.

Newspapers factor into the show's most thematically successful works. Sometimes the papers are depicted via painted representations, and sometimes Linden uses publications to make collages. In the oil-and-crayon work "The Morning News," a newspaper has fallen into the lap of an elderly woman who seems to be contemplating its contents. In "Sun's gonna shine in my back door someday," a work made from charcoal, oil paint, newspapers, roofing tar, tarpaper, and an old window frame, a woman's body is clad in collaged bits of real newspapers.

Yellowed old newspapers serve as a reminder of how the present turns into the past. Linden explores this notion further by occasionally presenting newspapers whose contents are hard to read, as if her subjects' memories have become fragmented and blurry. In "Railroad Night," an old man is seated next to a collaged newspaper whose pages have been covered with white paint.

The portraits incorporating newspapers generally work on both compositional and thematic grounds, but some other pictures in the show don't seem fully resolved. Linden's roughly rendered abstract backgrounds and brusque brushwork occasionally come across as rushed rather than strategic. Her approach to figuration also seems hasty. She's very effective in presenting facial features with spare charcoal lines and white paint but usually doesn't devote as much attention to bodies, which causes them to appear overly generic.

In "Woman in a Pink Slip," an elderly lady's face is given character-defining detail, but her hands and feet are so withered and murky they seem atrophied. Maybe that's the artist's point, but it'd be interesting if Linden at least occasionally expressed a subject's personality through his or her ancient hands.

Lest you think this exhibit belongs exclusively to seniors, younger people figure into such paintings as "Golden Girl (Sleeping)" and "Girl on the Beach." These beautiful young women also assume solitary seated positions. Maybe they're wondering what their lives will be like when their hair turns gray.

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