by Bob Doerschuk
Growing up in Philadelphia, Beth Foley developed a love for literature and film along with a set of childhood fears—all indicative of an active, fertile imagination. An undistinguished student, she felt she had no resources with which she could translate what was going on inside of her into any kind of creative expression.
In her early twenties, that changed when she decided to focus seriously on drawing and painting. “I’d never displayed any talent when I was a kid,” she says. “I just started doing it because I wanted to wear work shirts and carry around a portfolio.”
The irony of her humor and her fascination with the imminence of danger found outlets as she studied at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts in Philadelphia. She found her mentor there in Will Barnet. “He was my favorite because we have a similar aesthetic,” Foley says. “I liked the Northern Renaissance painters, and he was always talking about them. He was very supportive of what I did.”
After graduating from PAFA and exhibiting briefly in Philadelphia, Foley moved to the San Francisco Bay area. The Joseph Chowning Gallery represented her there until 1995 when she moved with her family to New York.
A Nashville resident since 1998, Foley has kept a somewhat low local profile. She has shown at the Zeitgeist Gallery and had two paintings in Real Illusions: Contemporary Art from Nashville Collections at the Frist Center for the Visual Arts in 2002. For eight years, she has been represented exclusively by the Ann Nathan Gallery in Chicago.
Foley’s style stands on a strong technical foundation. Her execution is extraordinarily precise; if there is a lawn in the picture, it will include individual blades of grass in the foreground. Using oil on flat board, Foley applies her appreciation for the Renaissance with vivid color fields and flat perspective. Her fascination with darker corners of the human soul catalyzes her narrative content and ominous but compelling imagery.
“I paint a lot of dark scenarios,” she says. “Usually murder or some terrible thing is happening. Usually it involves somebody naked, especially women. Nudes are something I do really well, but I don’t do them unless there’s a reason. I won’t say oh here’s another nude picture.
“It’s sort of anachronistic,” Foley admits. “A lot of the scenes take place in Nashville. I always paint what’s around me. When I need people to be without clothes on, I use models. I wouldn’t ask my friends to do that. But when I use characters who are dressed, I prefer to paint somebody I know.”
Childhood fears underlie the images in some of Foley’s newer paintings. One in particular came to mind while she was down with swine flu several years back. “I was thinking about fairy tales that I could read or that were told to me as a kid, especially because a lot of them are Germanic,” she remembers. “The Germanic fairy tales are very brutal, which is why, when I went to Germany and saw the ovens at Dachau, I thought of Hansel and Gretel.
“I was also always afraid of wolves in those stories,” she added. “So I did a Little Red Riding Hood painting. And because I was afraid of the Nazis, I did a Snow White that used the Auschwitz dwarfs, who all survived the war. They represent that period of time. Instead of the Wicked Queen, I had German Shepherds in the background. And then there’s Snow White. You don’t know if she’s dead or sleeping. It’s almost like the way the Jews might have felt about God at that time: Is he dead or sleeping?”
In Berliners, these fears personalize a striking portrait of a Jewish family from the 1940s, all wearing yellow stars and looking impassively toward the viewer. This painting is based on an actual photograph owned by a friend, a Holocaust survivor, whose mother is one of the four people in the photo.
Expect upcoming works to address similar themes, brought to life by Foley’s masterful technique and ongoing self-explorations. “I keep thinking about fairy tales,” she muses. “I want to do a painting from Flannery O’Connor’s A Good Man Is Hard to Find. And I have another childhood fear—Loeb and Leopold. There’s no shortage of material.”
Beth Foley is represented by Ann Nathan Gallery in Chicago, Illinois.