O’Donnell’s new work consists of meticulous paintings rendered with glazes and transparent oil paint colors applied to a prepared surface such as wood or paper. The glaze is difficult to maneuver and O’Donnell must frequently rub away the paint and reapply it to achieve ghosted images which evoke mystery and memory. The result is an atmospheric body of work which transcends time or historical genre.
This show primarily focuses on O’Donnell’s love of portraiture—and in particular—faces. O’Donnell in fact taught herself how to paint by studying and reinventing faces from art history, photographs, and other sources. A few earlier works in the show consist of grids of faces – Milton Avery, Pablo Picasso, Vincent Van Gogh, Rembrandt, and Lucien Freud, among others, are rendered with startling freshness and immediacy on wood panels which may be mixed and matched on the wall by way of Velcro pads affixed to the backs of the works.
Some of the new pieces such as Blue Boy harken to 18th and early 19th century American and English portraiture. Blue Boy at once evokes Thomas Sully’s Boy with a Torn Hat while also calling up something modern and brash—something a little edgy in the boy’s mouth—as if this is a reluctant lead in a junior high school play who is none-to-happy about the droopy hat he must wear. Similarly powerful, Woman with a Garland’s piercing blue eyes and eternal gaze cuts to the quick of capturing the human spirit.
Others pieces have deeply-textured surfaces which mimic renaissance painting or even Roman wall paintings discovered at Pompeii, as in the case of The Bridesmaid.
O’Donnell, the only woman ever to lead Phillips Exeter Academy, has been painting full time since her retirement from Exeter in 1997. She first became known for her paintings based upon old photographs. While her prior work was evocative, the thickness of the oil paint was sometimes a challenge to achieving clarity. The new works strip away the excess—quite literally O’Donnell wipes layers of oil paint away to achieve these almost translucent works, which are freer and more emotionally penetrating. In an odd way, it is these paintings, a decade or so after the first pieces based on photographs that somehow evoke the quick spark of life captured in a snapshot – the image created by the thinnest layer of human materials and the play of light and shadow on negative which renders the silent image. The departure from thick impasto to the almost spiritual use of thin washes of paint represents an “about face” in the artist’s work, one that the Larsen Gallery is pleased to showcase in a detailed and focused manner for the first time.