“Dandelion Puff,” self portrait by Anna B. McCoy
“Dandelion Puff,” self portrait by Anna B. McCoy
Her re-invention of a type of painting popularized by Rembrandt and the Dutch Baroque — the “tronie” — is far more than an antiquarian enterprise in this age of “selfies.” McCoy’s paintings of friends and family recall the long tradition of such explorations of the human psyche — from Leonardo’s late-in-life self-portrait drawing to Rembrandt’s etchings of himself from youthful blade to weary old age. More recent artists have portrayed themselves in their work — David Hockney, Chuck Close, Andy Warhol, Cindy Sherman — and Elizabeth Peyton paints small-scale heads of friends and celebrities. McCoy’s approach, however, is uniquely her own, and “Dandelion Puff,” for example, exhibits an endearing, self-deprecating humor, tinged with intimations of mortality, comparing her own tightly curled hair not just to the ubiquitous flower, bane of bourgeois suburban lawns, but to its final, fragile state of impending dissolution just one breath away. 

McCoy’s choice of the tronie is significant. An archaic term, it designates works that are different from portraits that typically would have been commissioned by the sitter or a patron. Tronies, as understood by Rembrandt, Vermeer and other painters of the so-called “Golden Age of Dutch painting,” were likeness of individuals, mostly anonymous, whose faces could be seen to express certain temperaments or moods — sadness, humor, introspection, surprise, as well as other, less legible states of mind. Informal, spontaneous or tightly controlled, and revealing of the artist as much or more so than the subject, McCoy’s tronies do what straight photography is far less capable of: they reveal states of psychological being — the artist’s own and that of her subjects’ — and the interplay between artistic process and emotional disclosure, largely through the artist’s choice of what to include or ignore, emphasize or eliminate.

McCoy paints what she sees — family, friends and familiar objects. Both faces and still life carry intimations of time passing. And still life, as conceived by McCoy, conveys distinct personas, often becoming portraits in absentia, and tronie-like in their personalities and specificity. Her still life paintings, like the tronies, are unusually simple and uncluttered; disparate flowers, fruit, vegetables, plates, utensils, glassware and other common objects are placed on tables, shelves or other furniture, usually in shallow, often indeterminate, background spaces. While the suggestion of casualness and informality prevails, it becomes apparent that McCoy’s interest lies in the subtle, almost imperceptible tensions evoked by the space between objects, enhanced by unexpectedly rich colors flickering off each other in the reflections of a glass, plate or polished metal. Edges tend to be softly modelled, light shimmers in dark recesses; brush strokes caress objects with an ineffable gentleness, quiet and repose.

That said, McCoy’s tronies and still life paintings have intense, activated and highly worked surfaces. We are aware always of her unusual, dancing brushwork that enlivens every form, different from but acknowledging such 19th-century American precursors including Raphael Peale, Frederick Peto, and William Michael Harnett. Every mark is just as present as the object it describes, maybe more so. In “Cuban Cigar,” a wisp of smoke from the lit cigar not only implies proximity to an absent but nearby smoker; it conveys a sensory world of simple pleasures — brandy, fruit, flowers and simple acts of human indulgence — in which even the air is tangibly “there” in the form of curling smoke deftly rendered through a brush lightly dragged, a finishing gesture to ignite the spatial relationships among objects. It is these inflected, complex, sincere, honest, painterly surfaces that convey McCoy’s own intensity and irrepressible spirit, her devotion to what she sees and knows well and intimately; analogues to life and being adamantly alive in the present.