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Discovering the Gritty Newcomer Michelle Louise

Poppy, Paintings, 40 x 40
The story of the painter Michelle Louise is one of triumph over adversity. Three years ago, after leaving an abusive marriage, Louise found herself a single mother raising three children with no job, no bank account, and no car –– almost a necessity in a town like Sanford, Maine, where her family has lived for three generations. While doing office work, waiting tables, and giving art lessons, she began to make contacts and sell her paintings, building a reputation beyond her home state. A feature article about her struggle in her hometown paper, the Sanford News, provided considerable publicity, and the quality of her paintings took it beyond a mere human interest story.  
    Louise’s first New York exhibition reveals her to be a formidable figurative artist  whose work is firmly rooted in her life.  In “The Dance,” intertwined male and female nudes whose hands reach for each other but don’t quite make contact seem to symbolize the shortcomings of many romantic relationships. Here, the strongly generalized figures, both of which are are entirely hairless but hardly androgynous, create a stylized effect that enhances the picture’s universality. And while Louise is normally a bold colorist, the dull brown hue of the flowers to the left of  the dancing couple, contrasted with the brighter blue background and the pale flesh tones, suggests that they are in the process of dying.
    In another acrylic on canvas called “Shhhhh Baby,” the loving bond between a  mother and an infant provides solace. In this, one of her strongest paintings, the colors are considerably more vibrant and perfectly harmonized. Both the woman and the child that she clutches to her breast have auburn hair, hers flowing down in luxuriant waves against her violet blouse. The brilliant cerulean background sets off the softer baby blue of the infant’s pajamas. The clear color areas, as well as the linear grace with which the contours of the figures are defined, suggests something of Toulouse Lautrec’s lithographs, had he found inspiration in nurseries rather than bordellos.
    In a painting called “Love,” the letters of the word are combined with gesturing hands in a manner that suggests a playful take on Robert Indiana’s famous series of paintings on the same theme. By contrast, a more abstractly stylized composition called “Hands of America,” in which joined hands of different colors encircle a single eye, is a plea for human harmony in the face of the many partisan conflicts that threaten to divide the country. And in another large acrylic on canvas called “Poppy,” the artist not only makes a strong formal statement with the large red flower filling almost the entire picture space, but also seems to suggest the flower’s role as the source of the worldwide heroin plague. (At least that is the conclusion this reviewer draws from the woozy, wiggling, pale blue linear forms on the dark ground surrounding the large flower).
    It seems to be Michelle Louise’s special gift to express such basic sentiments in strong, simple visual symbols that resonate in much the same iconic way as Keith Haring’s famous “Radiant Child” and Niki de Saint Phalle’s “Nanas.” This impressive debut exhibition suggests that we will be seeing more of this talented and resilient artist who has clearly, as the saying goes, snatched victory from the jaws of defeat.                   ––  written by Maureen Flynn

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