December 28, 2015
Text by Julie Dugdale
A Massachusetts artist uses collage and canvas as a vehicle for commentary about today’s pressing sociopolitical issues.
Giant glass windows, the size and shape of the double garage doors they replaced, usher in the sunlight that spills its cheerful glow across Gayle Wells Mandle’s studio. The airy workspace, actually a restored barn, sits just steps away from the home she shares with her husband, Roger Mandle, on a bucolic piece of property not far from the ocean in South Dartmouth, Massachusetts.
The picturesque setup is an idyllic counterpoint to the piercing sociopolitical messages embedded in the artist’s mixed-media paintings that line the perimeter of the studio, propped against the structure’s old walls. Many of the collaged canvases—created via a layering process that results in a bold juxtaposition of textures and materials—represent the multifaceted nature of divisive social issues such as war, poverty, and the environment. Within these themes, Mandle is driven by the concept of opposites, such as the powerful and the weak, or the wealthy and the impoverished. “I’m like a sponge with my sensitivity to the ‘haves’ versus the ‘have-nots,’” Mandle says across a table piled with recent newspaper clippings, which she uses to inform and inspire her paintings.
That engagement with social and environmental challenges began early on with her mother, who was also a painter. “I grew up in a mining town in Pennsylvania, with a river and flooding disasters,” Mandle says. “My mother would take me to the dump and paint the piles of debris there. All of this has infused the work I’m doing now.”
Perhaps the real catalyst in her examination of social issues through art, though, was her two-year stint teaching elementary school art in impoverished Spring Valley, New York. She began there fresh out of Skidmore College in New York, and credits that exposure to destitution for her interest in the rich-and-poor dichotomy.
As Mandle moved around the country with her husband (whose illustrious résumé includes fifteen years as president of the Rhode Island School of Design), her artistic expression morphed. Frustrated by teaching, she transitioned into an interior design career. In the early 1990s, when she and her husband moved to Washington, D.C., Mandle enrolled in a painting class at the Corcoran Gallery. It was during that time that she found herself increasingly fascinated by politics. Through pieces with titles like Alley, Shelter, and Urban Wall, her paintings began to reflect sociopolitical issues, such as the rampant homelessness she encountered in D.C.
During George W. Bush’s Presidency, Mandle embedded images of soldiers in a piece entitled Macho. Another from that same period, called Homeland Security, is done in reds, oranges, and yellows—the colors of terror threat levels—and features Mandle’s grandchildren’s handprints as a sign of lost innocence.
To create her lushly textured pieces, Mandle starts with materials that have a personal connection: handwritten journal pages, textiles from her interior design days, photos she’s snapped around the world. She glues them onto the canvas to build up texture, then tears pieces of them off for a worn, almost vintage feel before adding paint. The process is fluid. Some of the elements are planned, some more spontaneous. “I love the surprise when I layer and rip things apart,” she says. “When I deconstruct it takes it out of my control, and the element of surprise is in that process. It’s a layering of thought and emotion, color and texture.”
Mandle’s largest collection is from four recent years living in Qatar, where her husband was hired by the country’s royal family to develop a cultural community of museums and educational institutions. During that time, she created a body of work focused on the intricacies of an emerging nation in the Middle East.
Her current work centers on the environment, with pieces called Gulf Waters, Safe Extraction, and Pipeline exploring the interplay between natural resources like oil and fresh water. Many of these newer pieces will be part of a collaboration, Of Water And Bone, with her daughter, Julia Mandle—also a mixed-media artist—at Rhode Island’s Newport Art Museum next spring and summer.
Mandle’s art and the state of current affairs are inextricably linked. “Some people listen to great music when they’re painting,” she says. “I listen to the news.
I get so wrapped up in issues that seem so obviously unfair, and it fuels my painting.” •
editor’s note: To see more of Gayle Wells Mandle’s work, visit gaylewellsmandle.com.
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