Guerilla Magazine Ottawa, Talking Portraits

Talking Portraits reviewed by Tony Martins of Guerilla Magazine Ottawa, 2008.

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The Talking Portraits Series was review by the Guerilla Magazine of Ottawa Canada in an article entitled Portraiture by Intuition by Tony Martins in issue #8 in June 2008.

Portraiture by Intuition by Tony Martins

Do we create images of who we are on our own or through unseen collaboration with others? The “Talking Portraits” installations of wife and husband Sherry Tompalski and Graham Thompson use technology to capture a “co-creation” that is mostly invisible, highly intuitive, and quintessentially human.

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Rarely have I seen such compelling evidence of human intuition as I did on the morning I arrived at Sherry Tompalski’s studio to serve as subject for one of her portraits. I had met with the Tompalski and her husband Graham Thompson (both are Ottawa-based artists) a few weeks earlier over coffee to discuss possible treatments of their new multi-media collaboration in Guerilla. When Tompalski suggested that I could obtain a first-hand view of things by sitting for a portrait, I readily agreed and we began to make arrangements.

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The Talking Portraits series documents the creation of Tompalski’s oil-on-canvas portraits using three integrated components: the finished portrait; a time-lapse video of the portrait in the making; and an audio recording of whatever Tompalski’s subjects verbalize while beneath the gaze of the portraitist. As you may see in the three talking portraits we present here, the sum total is an almost spooky emergence of a distinct personality through shape, colour, image, and sound. Tompalski is a practicing psychiatrist. For her, the series serves as visual confirmation that “90% of what goes on between two people is unconscious”—an idea she credits to Daniel Stern, a professor of psychiatry and psychology and a noted expert in mother-infant relationship.

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In a slightly different sense, the Talking Portraits are an instance of co-construction, “the theory that there is a mutual reciprocal bi-directional interaction between two people that is unconscious,” explains Tompalski.

Which is sort of like a fancy way of saying intuition—which brings me back to that morning in Tompalski’s studio.

The smiling portraitist greeted me at the door and ushered me upstairs, where Thompson was attending to his video and audio set up. A 3×3-foot canvas was already positioned on an easel. It was nearly covered with large square swaths of purple paint.

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“This is the colour that reflects my impression of you after our first meeting,” explained Tompalski.

“Actually, purple is my favorite colour,” I replied.

“Well, there you go,” said Tompalski.

There was laughter and then knowing smiles all around. Simply by conversing over a cup of coffee, Tompalski and I had already begun to “co-create” my portrait. She had intuited the colour that best represents my conception of self and confidently used it as the foundation for the portrait.

Although Tompalski and Thompson have been married for 25 years, Talking Portraits is their first formal artistic collaboration. The idea began to take shape late last year, when the couple returned from an Asian tour where Thompson presented his digital artwork through a variety of new media installations.

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“Graham decided to document the series of large faces I was painting, as he was interested in capturing my intuitive approach to portraiture. We viewed the videos together, saw the possibilities, and began experimenting with voice tracks, music and time-lapse photography.”

On Friday, May 26, the Talking Portraits made a one-night appearance at Ottawa’s La Petite Mort Gallery. Previously, the Talking Portraits have appeared at the Red Salon Artists in Ottawa, the Bridge Street Gallery in Carleton Place, the Steam Whistle Gallery in Toronto (where the portrait “Sam” is in the permanent collection), and at the Ontario Psychiatric Association annual meeting in Toronto.

After the LPM show, the series was slated to appear at Ottawa’s Cumberland Gallery and Cube Gallery. The first international solo show of the Talking Portraits takes place at the ARC Gallery in Chicago in November and early December.

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Tompalski says the next phase in the Talking Portraits evolution will include a 90-minute ambient video version.

“The project will be shot in high definition video and the portraits will develop very slowly, in a hypnotic soothing way, and will be shown on a large screen,” Tompalski explained.

Recalling how I had yammered on about myself while sitting for my portrait, I wondered how other Talking Portraits subjects had behaved.

“I have no expectation that the person must talk, and as a result, there is a great deal of variety,” said Tompalski.

“For example, one woman sat for four hours and made only one comment. However that comment was extremely poignant and meaningful.”

ARC Gallery Chicago, Talking Portraits

Talking Portraits at ARC Gallery of Chicago in November  2006.

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Tompalski’s Talking Portrait installation opened at the ARC Gallery of Chicago on November 6, 2006. It was covered by CANTV and later broadcast November 19th at 3pm on CAN TV 21.

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The installation of 12 portaits, 6 videos and 7 portable CD Players were exhibited from November 1 to December 3, 2006 at 734 N. Milwaukee (corner of Milwaukee & Carpenter) Chicago USA. Videos of Graham, Jane, Carol, Marlene, Annick and Tony were displayed in a continuous loop on a video monitor at the centre of the installation. The corresponding audio tracks were made available on portable CD players so that visitors could listen to individual sound tracks as they view the 36″x 36″ portraits from the series. See the image below.

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The Talking Portrait Installation Overview

The installation includes audio, video and painted portraits. The portraits are painted from a live model sitting for approximately six hours. The audio portion is edited from the comments, questions and reflections made by the model during the sitting. The time-lapse photography records the development of the portrait.

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Typically, the painted portraits, exhibited as a matrix of faces, are inscribed with bold brush strokes and adventurous colours, that capture the psychological experience of the subjects. Tompalski’s work is concerned with intuition, interpretation, and  co-construction (the unconscious dialogue experienced during the portrait sitting.) Sherry Tompalski  states “To understand ourselves we look at others for clues as to what we are experiencing. The human face conveys a rich complexity of personal history, which we feel in an inexplicable way as an impression or an intuition. “

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The sound tracks, were developed by splicing together the unscripted comments between the subject and artist with computer music and an assortment of sampled sounds added.

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This dialogue allows for a momentary glimpse into the process of co-construction through the model’s verbal dialogue and the painter’s visual expression. The time-lapse photography displays the development of the portrait. The hypnotic effect helps the audience take the time to look and become engaged with the painted portrait.

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Thanks to our Supporters

Special thanks goes to Galeries Saw of Ottawa Canada, the Ontario Arts Council for their support in developing this show and to the coverage we received from CANTV who filmed the opening reception.

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ARC Gallery Backgrounder

The ARC Gallery is a not-for-profit, artist run gallery located in Chicago’s River West Neighborhood. ARC is an internationally recognized alternative space and has been an integral part of the Chicago art community since 1973. The ARC Gallery’s mission is to bring innovative, emerging and/or experimental visual art to a wide range of viewers, and to provide a nurturing atmosphere for the continued development of artistic potential and dialogue.

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Chicago Access Network Television CANTV

Chicago Access Network Television features Talking Portraits Installation at River West Gallery 2006.

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The Talking Portraits Installation was covered by Chicago Access Network Television CANTV during its exhibition at the ARC Gallery of Chicago in November 2006.

The installation includes audio, video and painted portraits. The portraits are painted from a live model sitting for approximately six hours. The audio portion is edited from the comments, questions and reflections made by the model during the sitting. The time-lapse photography records the development of the portrait.

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The ARC Gallery/Educational Foundation is a not-for-profit, artist run gallery located in Chicago’s River West Neighborhood. ARC is an internationally recognized alternative space and has been an integral part of the Chicago art community since 1973.

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CAN TV is an independent nonprofit established by the City of Chicago in 1983 as the public’s space on cable television free of commercials, filters, and censors. On our five local channels you can see the diversity of people and ideas that reflect Chicago, including voices often excluded from the mainstream media. The city where neighbors can freely share their passions and talents with one another is the city that works better.  For everyone.