Fan Mail

Fan Mail: Gillian Willans

For this edition of Fan Mail, artist Gillian Willans of Edmonton, Alberta, Canada has been selected from our commendable reader submissions. Two artists are featured each month—the next one could be you! If you would like to be considered, please submit your website link to with “Fan Mail” in the subject line.

Gillian Willans. Mise-en-scene: Red Room, 2012–13; acrylic and oil on canvas; 12 x 16 in. Courtesy of the Artist and Telephone Booth Gallery, Toronto

Gillian Willans’s series Mise-en-scène: The Paris Suite is on view at the Telephone Booth Gallery in Toronto, Canada, until July 21, 2013. The series resulted from Willans’s time in 2011 as one of sixteen international artists in residence at Parsons Paris, an experience, she says, that reshaped her. “It was a good thing,” she says.

“I went to Paris being a post-Impressionist junkie and was attracted to artists such as Vuillard and Bonnard. I came back to Canada transformed by artists such as Corot, Courbet, and Manet, all of whom had a huge impact on the advent of what is known as Realism in painting. I became enamored by the color and the shift of subject matter in that mid-1800s period when painting stepped out of the academy rules and into the personal realm.”

Gillian Willans. Mise-en-scene: The Library, 2012–13; acrylic and oil on board; 13 x 15 in. Courtesy of the Artist and Telephone Booth Gallery, Toronto

From Parisian flea markets Willans collected black-and-white photographs and postcards, which ultimately became the sources for these new paintings. Meditating on the influence of early photography on painting, Willans made color bear on this series more so than in her previous work. She added black to her palette as an homage to Manet and Courbet and used gray tones “because Paris is in itself at times a gray city—built with gray stone that is tinted and transformed by reflected light and dashes of color like the parks and store signs.”

I happen to be in Paris right now, and nothing strikes me more true than when Willans says:

“Because most of my sources are found images, there is no guarantee that they are exactly from Paris. That being said, whether it be from reading, movies, paintings, photographs, we all have some sort of visual invention of what Paris is like, which is much more than brick-and-mortar. Paris is rich. Paris is at once both light and dark. Paris is always framed.”

Gillian Willans. Mise-en-scene: Prelude, 2013; acrylic, oil on canvas; 11 x 14 in. Courtesy of the Artist and Telephone Booth Gallery, Toronto

Mise-en-scène: The Paris Suite is characterized by a curious absence of people. The scenes are tonal and pregnant, haunted by almost totally unaccounted for people and, alternately, the images seem to be waiting for those players to come back into the frame. No one could doubt that something has happened in these places and will happen here again: life.

Moreover, the series is meant to denote Willans’s relationship to cinema. “Directors like Atom Egoyan, David Lynch, Alfred Hitchcock,” she says, “use ‘the scene’ to create part of the rationale behind character development. The scene is active rather than passive,” as in her mise-en-scène (“the arrangement of scenery and stage properties in a play”).

“As for the mise-en-scène, these rooms are stage sets of sorts—staged for the people once there. I am at times more fascinated by the social constructs they suggest. I have always been interested in the narrative potential of the pictorial. I started as a figure painter and found over time that it was more likely to become too illustrative rather than suggestive when the figure was present. I found the chair will always embody the figure, even in his or her absence.”

Gillian Willans. Mise-en-scene: Manor House, 2013; acrylic and oil on board; 18 x 24 in. Courtesy of the Artist and Telephone Booth Gallery, Toronto

The paintings, too, are quietly preoccupied with how light behaves naturally and domestically. The harsh white light of a lampshade, catching in a gilded mirror, sunlight washing over the surfaces of walls and tables and glowing in doorways testify to the definitive powers of light. “Being from Northern Canada,” she says, “I have always been very conscious of shifts of light between the seasons and between times of the day.”

And matched with the other barometer that is color and the still-life-like abandoned domestic fixtures, the gentle fluxes in light speak tensely to the people out of sight. For a few years now, Willans has taken the interiors and exteriors of familial homes as her subject. “A house,” says the artist, “is a container for emotion and lost time…” It is an analogue for the interior lives of the people who mysteriously inhabit them every day.

Paint the household. Paint the conspicuously empty crib and the invitingly overstuffed armchairs, and they will flesh themselves out. Mise-en-scène: The Paris Suite, above all, is an elegant solution to narrative in painting. It is one sure way to talk about the daily lots of people—by taking them out of picture.