Anthony Palliser is fascinated by faces. This accomplished artist, who divides his time between Savannah and Paris, serves as the subject of 'Palliser,' a powerful solo exhibit currently on display at the Telfair's Jepson Center for the Arts.
The exhibit showcases the artist's portraits, landscapes and other experiments with paint created during the last two decades. Although his local landscapes reverberate with an understanding of the area's majestic colors and distinctive forms, Palliser's series of close-up, intimate portraits steal the show with their disarming honesty, careful attention to detail and bold insight into human experience.
'I hope very much that people will be moved and that they'll see something universal in these faces,' he said. 'When you get really individual, that's when it gets universal. I love that paradox.'
By juxtaposing oil and acrylic paint in strategic combination, Palliser paints each face as a richly-textured swirl of chocolate, cream, mahogany, sand and coffee hues - as unique and individual as a fingerprint. He focuses his attention on the universal essence of human experience, finding beauty in the weathered faces and steely eyes of his subjects.
In an attempt to transcend the familiar conventions of portraiture, Palliser strips his subjects of all artifice and adornment in order to expose the underlying essence of his subjects and himself.
'Anthony Palliser's subjects are often close friends, and his paintings reflect a kind of frankness and openness, sometimes even an intimacy, that exists as a result of his personal relationship to the sitter,' said Holly Koons McCullough, curator of fine arts and exhibitions at the Telfair Museum of Art. 'In other cases, the artist is drawn to what he describes as the geography or landscape of a face, the lines, creases and indentions that are the well-earned result of time and experience.'
The artist's wife, Savannah native Diane Lawyer Palliser, serves as the subject of a number of his portraits. From a tender image of her asleep in bed to a close-up portrait of her bracing against the winter cold, Diane clearly serves as an important personal muse for this prolific artist.
Recognized throughout Europe and the United States for his depictions of prominent artistic and political figures, Palliser exhibits detailed portraits of film director James Ivory, actor John Hurt, Savannah publicist Bobby Zarem, actress Kristin Scott Thomas and Japanese fashion designer Kenzo Takada, among others, in his latest show.
'These large-scale portraits of completely unadorned subjects are interesting for their raw, textural quality, and for their sense of being simultaneously both imposing and vulnerable,' McCullough said. 'A successful portrait conveys something about the particular character of the sitter, as well as something universal to human experience.'
Palliser recently spoke with the Savannah Morning News about the power of the face, the appeal of painting and life on Wilmington Island.
Savannah Morning News: Why are you drawn to portraiture, and specifically to faces?
Anthony Palliser: It's what moves me most. To me, faces are the repository of our fears, our loves, our sorrows, our conceits. The 'Big Heads,' as I call them, have all been created since 2003. It's really about painting individual things you love. Even when I'm painting landscapes, I try to make each painting a portrait of a specific place.
SMN: In the 'Big Heads' series, your subjects don't wear jewelry, clothing or other adornments. Why is that?
Palliser: This is just the raw face. If they were wearing a suit and tie or a baseball cap, then it wouldn't be the same. The hardest thing is to know exactly when to stop.
SMN: You live, part of the year, on Wilmington Island with your wife, Diane, a Savannah native. What inspires you about that particular setting?
Palliser: The Lowcountry is completely unique. I'm attracted to the individuality of the place. It has unbelievable horizontals and verticals. I've always insisted that I would not live anywhere but on the water. I think Savannah is a beautiful city, but I'd rather live on the water and pop into the city now and then.
SMN: You use both oil and acrylic in your paintings. Do you have a preference between the two?
Palliser: There's no question that oil is the most delicious and sensuous. But acrylic can be very useful because it dries faster. With oil paint, you paint the background and you have to wait a long time for it to dry. With acrylic, you can have a cup of coffee and you're ready to go. Acrylic makes you freer and less scared because it's more forgiving.
SMN: How has your painting style evolved?
Palliser: Every time I get to a new step, I say, 'Here we are!' And then the next step turns up. The good thing is that it keeps progressing. I have more ideas than I can paint, and I still have incredible enthusiasm whenever I start a new body of work.