Atlanta painter Ruth Franklin goes deep into portraiture

"Lake of Fire" (2017) by Ruth Franklin.
Courtesy of WADDI Art Gallery

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"Lake of Fire" (2017) by Ruth Franklin. Courtesy of WADDI Art Gallery

Family photos, Ellis Island documents, keen observation are all fuel to this artist’s desire to see life through the human face.

Is there anything as endlessly fascinating as the human face? Though social media has brainwashed us into thinking it is the judiciously filtered, beautiful, young and famous that make the best subjects, artists remind us that difference, authenticity, imperfection, complication, experience, all the expressions of one’s humanity worn on the exterior are what last.

Longtime Atlanta-based, British-born artist Ruth Franklin has made the portrait her metier. Her latest show at her (full disclosure here) husband and owner Shawn Vinson’s Old Fourth Ward gallery The WADDI offers many, many variations on that theme. This handsome new space close to the bustling artery of Edgewood Avenue has a lot going for it, including a spacious courtyard entrance where Vinson has plans to install a shipping container bar.

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"Yarmouth" (2020) by Ruth Franklin. Courtesy of WADDI Art Gallery

Credit: Ruth Franklin

"Yarmouth" (2020) by Ruth Franklin.
Courtesy of WADDI Art Gallery

Credit: Ruth Franklin

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"Yarmouth" (2020) by Ruth Franklin. Courtesy of WADDI Art Gallery

Credit: Ruth Franklin

Credit: Ruth Franklin

With over 50 works on view in “Ruth Franklin: Old and New Dreams,” it’s natural that some of the artist’s portraits simply won’t hold their own. And in the larger scheme of things, a husband may not be the best editor or curator of his wife’s output: a more orderly or insightful survey would have served the work better.

One of Franklin’s favorite techniques on display in “Old and New Dreams” is to work from old snapshots and render them abstracted, in fat swaths of paint. It’s a technique that can suggest the haze of memory. A large number of works on view fall into that category and yield mixed results.

Certain images in that style can feel like empty formal exercises: emotionally imprecise, cursory. While others seem front loaded with feeling. One example of that emotional weight is a portrait of a daughter and her father “Flood” (2008) that ripples with the subtle meaning-making of photographs: the little girl in her galoshes and arms folded protectively over her midsection, her father’s arms at his side, suggesting a readiness to spring into action. Her gaze addresses the viewer but his is focused off frame, taking the measure of the situation at hand. It is a precise but also accidental portrait of the relationship between child and parent at a moment of domestic crisis.

But it’s really two bodies of work that hit me hard: charcoal and acrylic drawings from Franklin’s “Ellis Island Immigrant” series and her “Smokers” series. Both are portraits, in some sense, of exiles. Exiles from country, arriving on American shores looking bruised and confused that Franklin has based on actual photographs of immigrants from the Library of Congress. And then there are those other occasionally maligned figures: the smoker, fugitive habitue of loading docks and alleyways.

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The solo exhibition "Ruth Franklin: Old and New Dreams," is presented at the new Inman Park art gallery WADDI and includes the work "Smoker" from 2021. Courtesy of WADDI Art Gallery

Credit: Ruth Franklin

The solo exhibition "Ruth Franklin: Old and New Dreams," is presented at the new Inman Park art gallery WADDI and includes the work "Smoker" from 2021.
Courtesy of WADDI Art Gallery

Credit: Ruth Franklin

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The solo exhibition "Ruth Franklin: Old and New Dreams," is presented at the new Inman Park art gallery WADDI and includes the work "Smoker" from 2021. Courtesy of WADDI Art Gallery

Credit: Ruth Franklin

Credit: Ruth Franklin

Franklin didn’t necessarily invite that comparison, but in style and effect, the two bodies of work are very satisfying. Take “Smoker,” in which a handsome man with invitingly unkempt hair is rendered as evanescently as the curl of vapor from his cigarette. If this portrait doesn’t inspire you to light up a Lucky Strike and take your chances, I don’t know what would. From the neck up, Franklin renders him with intense strokes of charcoal that create shadowy depths to his face. From the neck down, he’s a phantom, a roughly sketched suit and tie. It’s a pleasant contrast between detail and imprecision, which lumps the man within the realm of his subject “smoker” but also as a uniquely glowering, hazy, compelling individual. A similar effect, of knowing and evading the essence of a person, occurs in her portrait “Haze” in charcoal on cardstock, of a woman whose features look distorted by trauma.

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"Boardwalk" by Atlanta-based painter Ruth Franklin (2022). Courtesy of WADDI Art Gallery

Credit: Ruth Franklin

"Boardwalk" by Atlanta-based painter Ruth Franklin (2022).
Courtesy of WADDI Art Gallery

Credit: Ruth Franklin

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"Boardwalk" by Atlanta-based painter Ruth Franklin (2022). Courtesy of WADDI Art Gallery

Credit: Ruth Franklin

Credit: Ruth Franklin

Franklin’s sweet spot seems to be a tight-in view of her subjects like her “Boxer” in acrylic on canvas captured from a low angle against a field of darkness as if he’s just recovered from a punch. There’s something old world in Franklin’s approach, her color palette, the collection of humans she chooses to document like Lucian Freud cross-referenced with Henri Cartier-Bresson. Though she’s lived in the South for decades, you can’t help but feel her sense of Otherness, and understand why that attracts her to subjects experiencing a similar solitude.


VISUAL ART REVIEW

“Ruth Franklin: Old and New Dreams”

Through July 2. 11 a.m.-5 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays and by appointment; free. The WADDI Art Gallery, 26 Waddell St. NE, Atlanta 30307. 404.939.2787, differenttrainsgallery.com.

Bottom line: Some hits and some misses in this large exhibition of artist Ruth Franklin’s portraits.