Shelley Adler is a Toronto-based artist, best known for her large, stylized paintings of women. Originally from Edmonton, Alberta, Adler studied at the prestigious Edinburgh College of Art, and obtained degrees in Fine Arts from both York University and Boston University. She has been honing her focus on portraiture for nearly three decades, with exhibitions throughout North America.
For centuries the female face and form has obsessed artists such as Da Vinci and Vermeer; Adler joins the ranks of contemporary female artists like Alice Neel or Toronto’s Lynn Donoghue by interpreting that gaze with an unflinching directness and painterly style.
Adler’s colourful work brings to mind Alex Katz, with his cut-out, stripped-down figurative painting of the 70s and 80s. But Adler is more lavish and nuanced with her brushwork and the psychological scrutiny of her subjects. She constantly navigates scale and colour dynamics through multiple studies, often of members of her inner circle, while her studies denude her subjects of any pretense. Even the gestural postures of her subjects capture clues to their inner lives.
Although she usually paints in oils, Adler occasionally employs a looser technique with ink, gouache, or watercolour. These portraits take a somewhat edgier, unsettled tone not unlike the work of Marlene Dumas.
Of further note is the fact that Adler found her way back into a meaningful practice after motherhood, a period that can be fraught with resentment and loss of continuity for many female artists.
“What Adler brings to portraiture—a genre that has suffered a crisis of purpose since the invention of the photograph—is a rare combination of skilled draftsmanship, painterly intelligence and empathy,” writes Gillian MacKay for Canadian Art Magazine.
Adler is a painter’s painter—hardworking, unpretentious, rarely satisfied, and endlessly curious.
In this exhibition of newer facial studies in ink coming to Evans Contemporary, Adler’s subtle spin on the female gaze, easily framed as confrontational, can be seen as unmistakable portraits of women inhabiting their own skin.
1. Why do you think painting has remained relevant through the centuries and even now in our digital age?
So much of our world now is filtered through digital platforms—which has offered incredible creative opportunities—but trends are always swinging back and forth. I think there is renewed energy in work done by hand and one-offs. Like you say, painting has been around for centuries. I don’t think there’s any danger of it going away.
2. What is it about women that compels you to paint them?
My interest in women is primarily interest in the figure. I think there’s incredible power in the human presence. I paint women as a subject more than object—as in the story of women, if that makes sense. My daughter models for me regularly as do many friends and other family members. There are clues in the work as to what I am doing, besides employing the female gaze on my subjects, but then the work definitely resists easy interpretation.
3. What artists and/or art scenes excite you these days?
I am endlessly curious about other artists and comb through the private galleries and museums wherever I am. I was recently in Barcelona and discovered a new museum there devoted to contemporary Catalan art and was impressed by the work I saw there. Painters speak a similar language all over the world. I was also impressed by the fact that a new museum was dedicated to the work of local artists.
4. What do you think are the biggest challenges currently facing the arts community in Toronto? Globally?
Space to work is always a challenge for artists. Our cities are becoming so expensive that artists are being forced further and further away. I think there should be some protections in place for artists to remain in the centre of the city so our culture grows and develops around us. We all benefit from interaction with the arts. To marginalize that community is short-sighted thinking. Globally, what is great for arts communities are art festivals and biennales that bring art, artists, and art lovers together from all over the world. Right now there is a brand-new biennale in Newfoundland called the Bonavista Biennale that is showcasing work by local, national, and international artists.
5. You’ve shown in well-respected galleries in Toronto, Ottawa, New York, California, and London, England. What is your interest in exhibiting in a non-commercial space in Peterborough?
Haha. That’s a leading question. Peterborough is a great arts community with a long artistic history—in fact, one of the first art collectives in the country (Artspace) was started in Peterborough. When Paolo Fortin asked me if I was interested in showing at Evans Contemporary, a non-commercial gallery, I took the opportunity to develop new work that may or may not work in a commercial setting.
Shelley Adler’s exhibition Inks runs at Evans Contemporary September 8 to 30 (more info).
Images courtesy the artist.