Ray Donley

Ray Donley, Figure with Striped Cap, 2007 Courtesy Principle Gallery, Alexandria, VirginiaA recent exhibition at the Principle Gallery in Alexandria, Virginia, showcased the work of neo-Baroque painter Ray Donley. The title of the exhibition, “The Art of Los Bien Perdidos,” refers to Donley’s dramatis personae of “solitary itinerants,” lost ones or “perdidos,” in Spanish. The painter, who holds two degrees in art history, works in an idiom that reflects his admiration for the Dutch and Spanish tenebrists. The compositional formula for these “fictional portraits” typically focuses on a single figure in vaguely period dress, who emerges from a bituminous gloom that is both richly painterly and psychologically fraught. Because period details are kept to a minimum, with no archaeological stagecraft, the emphasis is on the psychic isolation of the individual. Donley claims to have no interest in “anachronisms for their own sake,” preferring to explore “a world that is idiosyncratic, personal and capable of transcending time and space.” In the simplest of these paintings, The Encounter (2008), enveloping shadows make it difficult to read the face of the subject, even though he crowds the picture-space in tight close-up. Does this sinister obscurity signal the unknowableness of the past or modernist alienation? The Sorcerer (2008) is a more recognizable character, with a streak of white ruffled collar and the shape of his magician’s hat discernable. The theatrical lighting on his face and on his rhetorically conjuring hands has a tinge of Caravaggio.  The self-conscious drama of the pose has a darkly playful, almost goth sensibility. It is easy to see why the surrealist filmmaker David Lynch is one of Donley’s collectors.

Figure with White Mask (The Sentence That Is Life), 2007, also suggests a character from a Renaissance or Baroque play. The figure, clad in black except for an edge of white at the collar, sits forlornly in front of a matte-black curtain with folds that mimic prison bars. The masked face and ruddier hands, hanging down in a gesture of resignation, seem to float ectoplasmically in the darkness. The implicit despair is smoothed over by the naturalistic yet clearly artificial contours of the mask, and the conventions of body language convey melancholy without divulging any personal details. The old master influence is mostly clearly seen in a relatively colorful image, Figure with Striped Cap (2007). The bust-length figure of a woman in profile stands out against the inky background. The shadows frame rather than encroach upon her face, and her profile has a luminous clarity. The peaches and cream of her complexion echo the red and white of her headdress, draped like a loose turban. The youth and beauty of the subject is given a melancholy cast, in keeping with Donley’s general aesthetic, by her downcast eyes and the impenetrable darkness that surrounds her. Figure with Striped Cap has the look of an old master painting, not because the artist has raided the costume trunk to give a contemporary model a historical character to impersonate, but because Donley has found something universal in the Baroque sensibility. He explains: “I have never wanted to be simply an artist adept at a pastiche….I wanted to use that approach and that flamboyant painterly technique as a point of departure for saying something poignant and resonating about the human condition.” Born and educated in Austin, Texas, where he still has his studio, Donley finds illumination not in the hard, brilliant light of the American Southwest but in the shadowy depths of the old master past and the human mind. Principle Gallery, 208 King Street, Alexandria, Virginia 22314. Telephone (703) 739- 9326. On the web at www.principlegallery.com

American Arts Quarterly, Spring 2008, Volume 25, Number 2