The eyes have it, in evocative portraits by Antiguan artist Naydene Gonnella.

The late comedian Robin Williams peers out from the canvas, the melancholy in his blue eyes piercing the viewer, demanding attention while admitting no effort in doing so. The discernible sadness on his face alludes to the depression Williams battled before ultimately ending his life; his face rests in his hand, as though even the task of raising his head is too great of a burden. The emotion evoked by the portrait nearly overwhelms, yet the painting’s vivid colours lift up the viewer, balancing the image’s heartache with an infusion of pop.

This tension of sadness and colour, of tragic circumstances and striking brilliance, is the hallmark of Antiguan artist Naydene Gonnella’s latest series, entitled Pop Phiz—“pop” in reference to “immediate or sudden,” as well as the mid-1950s art movement, and “phiz,” slang for physiognomy, which is the study of a subject’s facial features or expression. “Some of these are tormented portraits, of people who committed suicide or succumbed to addiction,” Gonnella explains. “The theme is dark, but the colouring and everything else is light. I like the contradiction of the subject matter with the way it was painted.”

While some of the series’ subjects, like Williams, bear a foreshadowing of their own personal tragic circumstances, others are presented as blissfully unaware of the fate they will one day meet.
Gonnella depicts boxing great Muhammad Ali as young and strong in his fighting stance, the slightest hint of amused confidence hiding in his eyes; smoke escapes in a sinewy wisp from Jimi Hendrix’s lips, parted in a playful smile.

The Pop Phiz series came about as a natural progression of Gonnella’s artistic career. The Canadian native was always drawn to art, and from the time she began to enter shows and competitions during her student years at OCAD in Toronto, the art community took notice. She then moved to Aruba, and the Caribbean’s colours and heat melded into the artist’s psyche, becoming an element that remains in her works today.

Though Gonnella was not initially inclined toward portraiture, she granted her friends’ requests to paint portraits of their children during the early part of her career, and eventually turned to self portraits as a means of exploration during a darker time in her life. The dejection she was experiencing leached into the artist’s works, and eventually Gonnella decided her art had become too dark.

“I decided to add the pop flair—the colour, a lighter bit of a sense of humor to it,” she says.When painting a portrait, the artist begins with a black and white image, allowing the colours she chooses to come from within rather than being based on reality.

The glowing blue highlights under young Bob Marley’s cheeks and the rainbow patchwork on John Lennon’s face are not rooted in actuality, yet Gonnella’s colour selections just make sense.
She saves a touch of realism for the part of the portrait where she wants the viewer to focus, most often the eyes, which transcend the distinction of “lifelike”—the eyes in Gonnella’s portraits are alive, radiating emotions that become the viewer’s own. They insist on a response.

If the viewers succeed in tearing themselves away from the piercing gazes of her portraits, they’ll note that the artist has included related symbols and phrases within the images. Menacing skulls float disembodied next to the haunting depiction of Heath Ledger in full Joker makeup, balanced by the phrase “Why so serious?” scrawled over the late actor’s shoulder.

A final trademark of Gonnella’s Pop Phiz series is her brushwork. She employs the encaustic method, mixing beeswax with bright pigments. Her strokes are built up in agitated movements, adding texture as another element of vitality, proclaiming with abandon that “Naydene was here.”


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