Jesse Garbe

Vancouver Sun

Artist's reflection haunts his portraits of others

"Most intimate setting is where you're face to face with a person"

Tuesday, November 29, 2005
by Amy O'Brian

There's a clear sense of discomfort in all of Jesse Garbe's colorful life-size portraits.

The portrait subjects -- his mother, his art dealer, his friends -- all look as though they're physically comfortable as they pose for the young Vancouver artist, but there's an indescribable strain confronting the viewer at first glance.

As unsettling as it is though, that awkwardness is fully intentional.

Garbe is more interested in relationships than simple depictions of the people he knows.

The 26-year-old Emily Carr graduate takes a certain pleasure in putting himself in awkward situations and illustrating a taste of that awkwardness in his work.

Some of the tension is derived from the nature of the relationship -- there are complex authority issues at play in his painting of Diane Farris, his dealer -- but some of the tension also comes from the demands Garbe puts on his models.

Each painting is the result of 30 to 40 sittings, each of which lasts three to four hours, meaning Garbe and his subjects spend somewhere around 100 hours facing one another with the only distraction being the canvas and paints.

"I just find that the most intimate setting is the one where you're face to face with that person and they're there to help you reflect on who they are and what the dynamics are between you and them," Garbe said during an interview at his small Vancouver studio.

"In a lot of [the paintings] you could question what's going on. You don't really know. Is it just a portrait of a person? Is there something going on?"

With the exception of the portrait of his mother, all the pieces in the current exhibition at Diane Farris Gallery were painted in the crowded confines of Garbe's box-like studio, which is tucked away in an old labyrinthine building on Emily Carr's Great Northern Way camp He worked on the paintings only when the subjects were there and avoided doing any touch-ups between sittings.

"Then it becomes about imagination and that's not what it should be about," he says.

He also doesn't like to paint from photographs or sketches -- only the live model will do.

"Nothing else really holds my attention. Even painting from a photograph doesn't hold my attention. It becomes this exercise in reproducing something that's already existing. It seems almost pointless to some extent."

And to clearly illustrate his interest in the relationships between himself and the sitter, Garbe often includes reflected portraits of himself at the easel within his portraits of others.

In the portrait of Farris -- who took Garbe on about two years ago -- his paint-spattered legs and easel are seen reflected in a mirror hanging in the corner of the frame. In the portrait of his mother, his reflection is seen in a large mirror set up behind the subject. And in his portrait of an unidentified model, Garbe's naked reflection is the central focus of the painting as the model holds the mirror on her lap.

Garbe says he had always wanted to do a nude portrait, but always found himself at an ethical standstill on the matter until he decided to make it a nude portrait of himself.

"I couldn't figure out how to do it, so I basically had to turn it around on myself and paint myself nude with a female looking at me," he says.

Wanting to keep the situation as awkward as possible throughout the multiple sittings, Garbe wore clothes most of the time and de-robed only about three times, so his nudity would never become entirely comfortable for either himself or the model -- who was an acquaintance, not a good friend.

"For somebody who's never seen you naked before and to see you not in a bedroom setting or anything like that -- no dimmed lights, just harsh lights on you is extremely nerve-wracking. It's embarrassing," he says.

"I try to make myself as unauthoritative as possible within that context. There's always a certain authority, but to get around that was my interest in that."

Garbe's exhibition at the Diane Farris Gallery is on through Saturday.

The Vancouver Sun 2005


Jesse Garbe pictured with the photographer reflected in a mirror

Portrait of Farris

Model with mirror reflecting Garbe
in the nude

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