, Salem, MA

September 5, 2013

Painting outside the box

By Will Broaddus
Staff writer

---- — Some famous people are featured in Ann Strassman’s exhibit at Endicott College — Mick Jagger, Ted Kennedy, Queen Elizabeth — but none of them get the star treatment.

That’s because most of the paintings in her show were created on flattened cardboard boxes, the kind that are used to ship refrigerators, washing machines and other large appliances.

“I paint on cardboard because I don’t want people to think art is precious,” said Strassman, who has a studio in Boston and studied at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

Her exhibit, “Ordinary and Extraordinary People, Conversations on Canvas and Cardboard, Portraits by Ann Strassman,” will be in Endicott’s Heftler Visiting Artist Gallery until Sept. 27.

While the rough and ready qualities of cardboard challenge our preconceptions, they also contribute to the creative process, Strassman said.

“I like working with junk on the surface,” she said. “I like surfaces that aren’t clean and have a history of themselves on it.”

That includes the folds and tears in packing boxes, along with the labels pasted on their surfaces, and even the material printed on their sides, such as brand names, assembly instructions and icons that show workers how to handle a box.

“I think especially when you have machine-made graphics to contrast with the strokes an artist makes, I like the contrast, visually and philosophically,” Strassman said.

She is mostly interested in the visual impact of these elements, but “occasionally something will jump out, and I’ll say, I want that to be there; it contrasts or goes with the image,” she said.

Viewers, then, may be forgiven for searching for meaning in the words “sub-zero” crawling behind Albert Einstein’s head, or a word like “warning” nestled in Mick Jagger’s hair.

The physical properties of cardboard also play a role in the way Strassman’s paintings are made.

“The surface of cardboard is fabulous to work on,” she said. “I love the way it feels and what happens to the paint, which soaks in a little bit, then starts to build up a harder surface, because acrylic paint dries fast.”

Strassman got the idea for working on commercially printed surfaces one day around 12 years ago, when she was bored with a model in her studio and found herself intrigued by the graphics on a Bread and Circus bag.

Her first painting on cardboard, which her gallery owner loved and quickly sold, was of Venus de Milo, the iconic, armless sculpture in the Louvre created by Alexandros of Antioch.

Most of the famous figures in Strassman’s series are from popular culture or current events rather than art history, and they were chosen in part with the viewer in mind.

“It is very difficult to be a portrait painter, because people respond to images they know, or they want you to paint their kid,” Strassman said. “I don’t want to paint their kid. But how do I put something on my canvas people will respond to?”

Her choice of subjects is suggested by famous people’s features, however, as much as their celebrity.

“There has to be something there that speaks to me about a face,” Strassman said. “Lincoln — I think he has a wonderful face.”

And while the faces of Lincoln and Willie Nelson are immediately recognizable, Strassman makes their images her own with vivid touches of color and vigorous brush strokes.

“When I’m working on an image, I’m almost challenging that image, and I feel I’m not making a painting; I’m making a person,” she said. “It’s interesting; in the process of painting, there comes a point when it seems to come alive.”

Almost to prove the point that her works are about “the magic of paint,” as Strassman says in an artist’s statement, rather than fame, the show also includes several portraits of anonymous street figures. Captured at moments when they are rummaging through a purse, watching traffic from the sidewalk, or simply lost in thought while waiting, the people in these images are studies in “disconnection,” as the series they appear in is titled.

“It is a 180,” said Strassman, who started painting street people around two years ago. “I got to the point where I thought I needed to do something a little different.”

But these portraits are no less alive, in Strassman’s sense, than the paintings of famous people. In both cases, it’s the creative process that has brought them to life.

In spite of the contrast between the subjects of the two series — or perhaps because of them — the viewer sees that it is the creative process that has brought them to life.

IF YOU GO ... What: "Ordinary and Extraordinary People, Conversations on Canvas and Cardboard, Portraits by Ann Strassman" When: Through Friday, Sept. 27. Gallery hours Monday to Thursday, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.; Friday, 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. No weekend or evening hours. Where: Heftler Visiting Artist Gallery, Walter J. Manninen Center for the Arts, Endicott College, 376 Hale St., Beverly Admission: Free and open to the public Information: