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Monday, Nov. 21, 2011

Guequierre's Beautiful 'Eyes' at Portrait Society Gallery

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On my desk is a two-panel painting titled The Most Beautiful Woman in Town, signed J. Roberts G. and purchased in 1994 from the now-defunct Hermetic Gallery in Riverwest. A year earlier, Jean Roberts Guequierre was voted Milwaukee's Best Visual Artist in the Shepherd Express Readers' Choice Awards.

Highly credentialed and wildly cerebral, Guequierre and her work have remained excellent during the past 17 years. Influenced by her fascination with Florentine artist Giotto di Bondone (1267-1337), Guequierre's exhibition “Giotto's Eyes” will run Dec. 2-Jan. 14, 2012, in the intimacy of the Portrait Society Gallery.

In preparation for this review, I sat with the artist, sipping Kenyan coffee in her Shorewood kitchen. I was surprised that we had both lived in Highland Park, Mich., a crumbling Detroit suburb. Her childhood was problematic, but she found refuge at the Detroit Institute of Arts, spending hours transfixed by pre-Renaissance and Renaissance images.

“I've been mad for Giotto's work forever,” she says with a smile, adding that “what brought me to him were his emotions; however, he kept the Byzantine shorthand of storytelling in which the eyes direct you to read the story.” The eyes are sly, shy and, at times, confrontational or wary. She shares an exquisite selection of portraits drawn with walnut ink and a crow-quill pen. The result is pure beauty with little room for error. “We learn from error,” she says.

We wend through her au naturel backyard garden to her studio over the family garage. She descends with a series of seductive oil-glazed paintings intended for the exhibit. Yes, Giotto's creamy palette of burnt sienna and yellow ochre lives on. And the eyes, oh, the eyes: What theatrical tales (elements abound echoing Giotto the architect) they tell—tales rich with gesture and ripe with suggestion unfolding beneath blue skies smooshed with fat pink clouds. Around us, chickadees chip-chip—a choir of angels. I'm in heaven.

Heaven? It's also on floor five of the Marshall Building at the Portrait Society.
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