Tensions bubble just beneath the surface of Gregory Ferrand’s newest works (painted 2017) now on view at the Adah Rose Gallery in Kensington, MD. The DC-based artist’s lush narratives turn seemingly mundane domestic settings into cinematic, emotional tableaus rife with yearning, alienation and perhaps even bitterness. With a new emphasis on color, Ferrand focuses on the family unit, using complex tonal combinations to invoke feelings of isolation, jealousy and ennui within these core relationships.
The domestic scenes and spaces Ferrand conjures are imbued with whiffs of nostalgia, subtly suggesting idealized interactions beamed into our houses by 1950s and 60s sitcoms. It IS You (and me too) depicts what might be the midway of a county fair, complete with celebratory fireworks in the distance. Here target shooting is a family affair—the outing worthy of dressing in Sunday finest, as the clothes on the two adults in the foreground attest. Contemporary debate over the role of guns gives way to a sense of Americana and a time and place where skeet shooting is as wholesome as apple pie. A more intimate example can be viewed in The Engagement (2016), which features what appears to be a small party taking place. Here we see ladies in smart dresses, their looks finished with pearls. The gentlemen too are wearing suits with lapels and ties out of sync with contemporary fashion. Hairstyles add to a sense of times past, with waves, curls and parts more in tune with previous generations.
Nostalgia is also underscored by Ferrand’s painting style, particularly in the way he captures his subjects’ faces. While the artist certainly strives for realism in his creations, the faces often lack dimensionality, appearing almost as caricatures rather than flesh and blood. Because if you don’t, you just might cry (1) and (2) feature close-ups of children in what appear to be moments of mirth. While the skin tones are rendered with accuracy, the lips in particular lack dimension, undistinguished from the surrounding flesh. A lack of dimension is even more noticeable in the treatment of the young boy’s hair, where the waves are flattened and the brushstrokes more apparent. This painting style is also evident in the two figures depicted in The Fortune Teller Was Mistaken where shadowing is skillfully captured yet the man and woman hover between reality and cartoon.
Far from amateurish, Ferrand specifically intends to create these semi-fictionalized depictions to toy with our psyches, further illustrating that when we nostalgically recall a “simpler past”, we are often recalling fiction over fact. Cracks in the facade of nostalgic domesticity widen when we start to glimpse smaller details within the works. Works such as Nothing Lasts Forever (and that’s okay) and They’ll Work It Out show adults holding cellphones—pieces of science fiction in an erstwhile historic setting. Odd details, such as the background paintings in They’ll Work It Out and The Fortune Teller Was Mistaken, contribute to this growing sense that we are glimpsing something eerily devoid of time. The resulting effect is that the images take on cinematic tones, as if a moment from a film is coming to life before our eyes.
Ferrand heightens this cinematic effect in two unique ways. The positioning of his characters appears random, yet is based on basic geometric principles to add to the paintings’ sense of dramatic engagement between them. In It is You (and Me Too), the figures are arrayed along the strong diagonal line of the counter, with our eyes focusing on the couple in the left foreground. The foreboding suggested in They’ll Work it Out is intensified by the horizontal triangle formed with the child positioned at the apex of the triangle, separated from the adults in both distance and emotion. A similar triangular form between paired figures is evident in The Engagement, but in this instance the apex of the triangle rests in with the two figures seated on the sofa in the background of the image. These placements establish or reinforce visual and emotional sightlines between individuals—sightlines which exist despite the relative flatness of the picture plane.
The artist’s newest approach to color visually creates depth within the picture plane and also adds dramatic, cinematic tension to the characters’ interactions. The overall ocher color scheme of They’ll Work it Out is punctuated by the blue tones of the boy’s shirt. That punch of blue, contrasting both his skin tone and the images of his parents, pulls the boy to the foreground while relegating his parents to distant (emotional) sides of the work. The reverse effect occurs in The Engagement, where the orange tones of partygoers on the left and right foreground pull them forward and away from the couple (painted in a more somber blue), suggesting that not everyone is partaking of the evening’s merriment. I Had a Dream That You Were Mine uses color to not only create depth but also stage vignettes within the image, again heightening the work’s cinematic quality. In the foreground, a couple embracing in apparent secrecy is captured in shaded violet, while the men in the living room are swathed in shades of scarlet pink, perhaps emanating from the unseen television to the right of the door. In the background, we glimpse a woman bathed in the bright yellow light of the kitchen, cooking in heels (dangling cigarette to boot). Each grouping is presumably part of the same familial unit, but in Ferrands’ world, they interact from seemingly different planes of emotional existence.
This unique combination of character positioning and strategic coloration creates powerfully emotive domestic scenes with narratives left to chance and viewer interpretation. Ferrand’s titles give the viewer just enough information to discern his intent—that these are studies of longing and alienation—but leave the “true” nature of interpersonal relationships subject to internal debate. Who Are We Now for example captures a family in transit, presumably waiting for a flight. Are the worn looks on the characters’ faces due to physical fatigue from a long flight delay or symptomatic of strained family relations? The passport in the father’s hand suggests possible international travel. Is the mother, shown in slight profile yet positioned away from her husband, dreading the endpoint of this journey or consumed with remorse for what she leaves behind? Ferrand provides no answers to these questions, forcing the viewer to uneasily dwell within the works, weighing each visual clue.
What is clear is that proximity does not guarantee emotional intimacy. The young boy in They’ll Work It Out occupies the same sofa as his parents, yet their preoccupation with their cell phones displays an emotional gulf his dispirited body language has yet to overcome. In a similar vein, the revelers in The Engagement fail to notice that not everyone at the party is having a ball. Like the ship in the painting over their heads, the glum couple sits adrift in an ocean of merriment for which they seem inadequately equipped. The viewer can’t help but wonder if their dour faces represent anxiety for the future or regret for the past.
And therein lies the magic of Ferrand’s work. Raising more questions than answers subtly encourages viewers to engage the work through their own lens of personal experience. His unique use of color to contrast individuals within the work pulls the eye of the viewer in, making us participants within the scene rather than detached observers from afar. The emotional isolation between individuals becomes palpable, cutting through the more quotidian aspects of the scene. And yet the angst is somewhat tempered by the comic undertones of the characters’ faces. Does humor win the end? One would hope so, for as the two small works allude, if it doesn’t you just might cry.
It IS You (and Me Too) is on view through January 5, 2018 at the Adah Rose Gallery in Kensington, MD. For more information, visit the gallery’s website here.