Artist Michelle Giulvezan-Tanner’s work
When I first met Michelle Giulvezan-Tanner years ago, she was a straightforward artist. These days, the painter has taken to being more abstract, particularly on canvas. It happened about two years ago. She felt that her work, predominantly large-scale oil paintings of people, had become static and one-dimensional. “They didn’t seem to have any life or movement so I started hungering for that wonderful abstract of mark making,” she says. “I had a great conversation with a curator in San Francisco. He pushed me to go back to my abstract roots. I love throwing paint around and seeing what emerges from it; I [now] take abstraction and infuse portraiture.”
What she’s come up with through this process is a series of beautiful paintings that are both intimate and blurry at the same time. The series is currently on display at Lulu’s at the Octagon during the month of March. Here’s a snapshot of some of the paintings in this show:
There’s “Kristen,” a student from UC Santa Cruz who interned at the MichaelAngelo gallery when Giulvezan-Tanner was previously the gallery director there. After some time, this student, Kristen, agreed to sit for Giulvezan-Tanner so she could paint Kristen. “She is also an artist, and the nice thing about painting for artists is that they critique your work, too,” Giulvezan-Tanner says. “I was fascinated by her. She had strength of character that was unusual for being a young girl and I wanted to paint that. … I spent weeks painting Kristen and went [to the painting] with a three-inch round brush and swiped over it. Everything became blurred … it’s the creative side to let it go and become more interesting. … There are ways to trick yourself into doing that … talking on the phone while I paint allows my subconscious to come out.”
And then there’s “Roberta,” also a part of this new series of abstract portraits. Roberta visited Giulvezan-Tanner during an Open Studios tour. She was, according to the artist, “a beautiful Mediterranean woman.” Giulvezan-Tanner asked her to “sit for me” and while Roberta was interested, she was also admittedly a little suspicious about some stranger asking to paint her. Roberta agreed and the final image, which was repainted five times, is so abstract that even Roberta may not recognize herself anymore. It’s a gorgeous painting of a classically attractive Italian woman—only with the successfully executed blurry lines technique that Giulvezan-Tanner now uses.
A third painting is “Maria,” a portrait of Giulvezan-Tanner’s own daughter, who is now 24, although the painting was completed a few years ago. “I wanted to do something different,” Giulvezan-Tanner says of enlisting her daughter to model for her. “I had a lot more freedom. She’s seen my paintings for years and is very supportive of them. I was [starting] to use abstract painting and she was encouraging.
Admittedly, abstract portrait painting is a love it or hate it style, Giulvezan-Tanner says. “Some people like classical portraiture,” she adds. “Some people don’t like that loose brush stroke.” And then there’s the problem that she runs into with sales that sometimes people don’t want a portrait of a stranger in their house. However, there are those—many—who are drawn to Giulvezan-Tanner’s work—it’s exceptionally beautiful, and each portrait has a story sitting there on the surface. It’s just our job to come up with the tale behind the person in the painting.
And the person behind all of these paintings, of course, is Giulvezan-Tanner, who now in her ’50s admits that she really didn’t come into her own until she was in her ’30s. And since becoming a full-fledged artist, she admits that she’s changed over the years: “I see life differently,” she says. “I’m going to do art. … What’s important is that I remain true to the vision of my artwork. There’s a mystery in people and I want to capture that mystery, that fleeting quality in life.”
With “Kristen” she captured “her strength,” Giulvezan-Tanner says. “She’s balancing precariously on a chair, with an underlying vulnerability.” With “Maria,” the artist has captured a 22-year-old who is “all dressed up, waiting for life to begin.” And with “Roberta,” the Italian woman, she has captured elegance and beauty with the background implying the light of Italy.
Her new body of work comes from “the ability of letting go of making a pretty painting,” Giulvezan-Tanner says. “And letting go of what you think people want you to do. The whole idea of blurring the edges is a metaphor for getting older. You’re not as sharp as you used to be. People would rather hire a younger person. Your vision gets blurry. You don’t see things so cut and dry anymore. Sometimes things aren’t what they appear to be—they’re not as black and white. There is a lot of grey area.” There are about 20 images in the series; not all of them are hanging in Lulu’s, but the full show will be seen in an upcoming Santa Cruz County Bank art show. All the paintings are for sale, ranging in prices from $500 to $2,000, and ranging in sizes from 18-inches by 24-inches to 4-feet by 5-feet.
Her paintings can take anywhere from two months to two years to complete. She keeps them on the walls of her studio and as she walks by them, sometimes she’ll see something that needs to be changed, so she’ll snap up her paintbrush and start making adjustments. As an artist, she’s let go of any artistic constraints she may have had as a younger person, relishing in the freedom of maturing, and watching her paintings continue to evolve. Giulvezan-Tanner is a woman who blurs the lines.
Michelle Giulvezan-Tanner’s abstract portraits are on display at Lulu’s at the Octagon, at the center of Cooper and Front streets in downtown Santa Cruz.