Reflections on Being

Two artists bring their styles and ideas to a joint exhibition at Salem College
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By Tom Patterson

(This article covered the joint exhibition by Trena McNabb and Teresa Unseld. Included here are the comments which refer to McNabb's portion of the exhibit.)

Figural drawing and collage or montage are fundamental to the art of Trena McNabb.
Recent examples of this work are on view at the Salem College Fine Arts Center Gallery in a joint solo exhibit titled "That Which Makes Us Who We Are."

McNabb is a former commercial-design artist who has spent much of her career painting on commission for corporate clients. But in recent years she has begun to exhibit the art she makes on her own time.

Her exhibition, "Life Portraits," is in the front section of the gallery. It is dominated by 11 life-size, full-body portraits employing a technique she calls "transparent collage," in which a variety of different but thematically related, naturalistically rendered scenes overlap each other to form a multi-layered montage. It's essentially a painted version of the photomontage technique.

In the case of each of these particular works, the thematically related scenes are rendered in generally bright shades of acrylic paint, and they surround and augment a central portrait delineated in pencil directly on raw canvas. The surrounding, painted imagery is clearly intended to illustrate aspects of the life of each portrait's subject or subjects.

For example, in her portrait titled Art Collector, Ruth Julian, a longtime local art patron is framed all around by a richly hued montage of artworks in her collection and related objects that she displays in her home.

And in her portrait Folk Art Carver/Craftsman, George Servance Jr., she has surrounded his head and the upper part of his body with the tools of his trade - knives of various kinds, a jar of paintbrushes, cans of paint - and several of the painted, moveable "limberjack" dolls that are his specialty. Hints of other aspects of his life can be found in the composition's lower peripheries, where McNabb has painted a mass of black-eyed peas and a seascape with a fishing boat and a substantial number of fish below it.

The work in which McNabb has achieved the most successful balance between the central portrait and the numerous, smaller, related scenes that surround it is Migrant Worker Family, Sarah and Gabrielle. Here a life-size drawing of a young woman wearing a long dress, sandals and pigtail braids tenderly holds a baby girl clad in a frilly dress, and they're surrounded by imagery from their daily domestic life, including a backyard landscape in which clothes are hung out to dry on a clothesline that cuts a strong diagonal across the top of the composition.

The results are more mixed in some of the other portraits in the series, with so many different scenes and images combined in them that they begin to look claustrophobic, overworked and less than coherent.

In addition to the paintings in the previously discussed series, McNabb is also represented here by five smaller works. One of the latter, The Blacksmith, Ralph Zimmerman, employs the "transparent collage" technique to portray an anonymous craftsman with the tools and products of his trade. In the other four, she has isolated drawings of unnamed individuals on raw canvas - like the central portraits in the larger works - and set each of them off against a varnished, white-gessoed ground. Drained of all the bold color found in the larger works, they nonetheless hold up fairly well as quiet, straightforward portraits.

Published: January 19, 2003
Reprinted from the Winston-Salem Journal
© Piedmont Publishing Co. Inc.

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