Laara Cassells’s acrylic portraiture prompts viewers to consider their relationship with technology.
By Anise Stevens
Laara Cassells is an award-winning Canadian artist whose representational paintings reflect a comprehensive understanding of art history and the stylistic subtleties that distinguish one period from another. Her portraiture challenges viewers to consider how our fixated preoccupation with technology has ultimately changed our relationship with the natural world.
As a child, Laara Cassells loved to watch her father, Leslie Foot, work. He was an English portraitist who inspired her to go outside with a sketchbook and draw all the time. As a young girl, she dreamed of becoming an artist. But she gave in to her practical nature after high school and opted to pursue a degree in business management. Encouraged by her parents, she made the decision knowing it would benefit her economically.
An Art Education
It wasn’t until after traveling the world and then settling in Vancouver, B.C., that Cassells felt the urge to revisit her passion for art. Initially, she thought she’d take a class or two. But after enrolling in a course in sculpture, she fell in love with the medium. She ended up pursuing an undergraduate degree in fine art from the Emily Carr University of Art + Design, then known as the Emily Carr College of Art.
Cassells credits two of her professors’ expertise and guidance as crucial to her foray into the arts. The English sculptor, Ray Arnatt, with whom Cassells studied in Vancouver. And Michael Hall, whom she met while working toward her master’s degree at the Cranbrook Academy of Art, in Michigan. “They each were practicing artists and encouraged me to be an active, curious artist and gallery goer,” she recalls.
“They introduced me to current-day sculptors, curators, and critics and (then) contemporary art trends such as site-specific installations and performance art.”
Although Cassells’ master’s degree in sculpture presented the opportunity to teach, she was more inclined to pursue additional learning opportunities. To that end, she enrolled in a summer workshop taught by the Czech scenographer Josef Svoboda. Svoboda’s set designs, as described by Cassells, “appeared like large sculptural installations.” Transfixed by his revolutionary use of contemporary materials and original effects, Cassells found the course life-changing. She ended up applying to the University of Calgary, where she earned a second master’s degree, this one in set and costume design.
From 1985 to 1994, Cassells designed sets and costumes for opera, television, theater, and ballet across Canada and in Denmark. “My sculptural background gave me a strong sense of the spatial aspects of set design. And my love of art history provided me with an understanding of the period details needed for various historical styles.” The artist also acknowledges the value of the many painting courses that had served as a foundation for each of her degrees. Not only did they, and do they, provide her with a contextual understanding of color, but they afforded her an understanding of the importance of underpainting and the ever-changing effects that light has on color.
For nine years, Cassells actively pursued a career in theatrical design while maintaining her fine art practice on the side. “During that period, I exhibited my artwork in Canada, the United States, Europe, and South Korea. Eventually, however, the constant travel that my design career required became onerous,” says Cassells. “I decided that I could better devote time in the studio if I had a more stationary career.”
Back to Her Roots
In 1994, Cassells accepted a full-time position at Medicine Hat College in Alberta, Canada. Given the opportunity to teach courses in subjects she loved, such as sculpture and three-dimensional design, the career shift provided her with much more time to maintain her studio practice and establish an exhibition record. It wasn’t until 2003, however, that Cassells started to pursue painting. She admits that she’d always been intimidated by her father’s skill and reputation as a portrait painter. But having accumulated a wide range of experiences, she says, “I felt I had the confidence to work realistically.”
Inspired by her love for horses (which Cassells has owned throughout her life), she featured them in her first series of paintings, entitled e.strange. Although reminiscent of classic equestrian portraiture, where the subject appears on horseback, the paintings in the series feature individuals who aren’t only disengaged from the animals but are consumed by their electronic devices. Like Cassells’ sculptural work, which tends to include a conceptual underpinning that provides some social or political commentary, e.strange offers an underlying message regarding the effects of technology, which she explored further in a series entitled _after .
Past Meets Present
Although Cassells wasn’t planning on pursuing a second series with a technological theme, she recalls the day she noticed a student’s hands while holding her cell phone. “Their particular position looked like a pair of hands in an Old Master’s painting,” Cassells recalls, “and that was the genesis of the _after series.”
In her _after series Cassells pairs contemporary subjects, again engaged in technology, with figures from historical portraiture painted between 1460 and 1907. “The paintings are mostly inspired by European society portraiture, which, like the modern Facebook page, often present an idealized version of an individual.” Cassells chose models with an eerie resemblance to the sitters in the original paintings. “It’s my aim,” Cassells says, “to underscore the differences in lifestyle over the centuries, despite the enduring similarities in genetics.”
The _after series also affords viewers the opportunity to revisit various periods, each defined by its own set of aesthetics. Jessica Ford and Lucrezia Panciatichi (after Agnolo Bronzino), for example, exhibits traits unique to the school of Mannerism. Both subjects appear flawless, clad in radiant reds that bring out the glow of their unblemished skin. Like the original sitter, whose delicately depicted hands evoke an air of sensuality, one resting atop a book of prayers, Jessica’s assume a similar elegance, positioned atop the keys of her laptop.
While the latter painting is exemplary of Mannerism, Claire and Doña Isabel de Porcel (after Francisco de Goya) expresses the much more lyrical nature emblematic of Romanticism. Like the sitter portrayed in Goya’s original, Cassells’ contemporary subject projects a definitive edge of confidence and contentment. Not only are both women looking up, but they both seem to be smiling. The edges of their mouths are raised just enough to indicate an internal stir of emotion.
Lindsey and a Portrait of a Young Lady (after Albert Edelfelt) also reflects characteristics common to the period in which the original was painted. Edelfelt is known for his contribution to the Realist art movement, but the loosened brushwork, evident in his later work and Portrait of a Young Lady, suggests Impressionism’s influence, most noticeable upon his subject’s neck and garment.
Sheridan and Paul Wayland Bartlett (after Charles Sprague Pearce) also embodies elements exemplary of Impressionism, which was formative to Pearce’s practice. For example, the original sitter doesn’t appear to be posing. Instead, he assumes a stance of spontaneity much like his contemporary counterpart with whom he interacts directly. This exchange generates a sense of movement within the piece; it also introduces an intriguing narrative that captures the essence of Cassells’ intent.
On Her Process
Stylistically, Cassells considers herself a contemporary realist or a conceptual realist. “When I work on a series, I use a realistic approach to representation to explore a general theme and underlying concept.” When working on commissioned portraiture, she aspires instead to represent her subjects as accurately as possible, but also to “look for that invisible, ethereal quality that I perceive clearly but is so hard to articulate.”
As for Cassells’ process, she begins on the computer with her own photographs, manipulating compositional elements, color, tones, and lighting effects. After settling on a final composition, she projects it onto a gessoed canvas to pencil in a rough outline. Using a printed image for reference, she paints in the background. Then she works outward, toward the foreground, at first with saturated hues and broad strokes and then, with each successive layer, including more subtle nuances of color and detail.
Cassells has always preferred acrylic. And she doesn’t mix her paint with water. “It makes the paint too thin and runny for a vertical surface,” she explains. Instead, she has found Golden matte medium and Golden acrylic glazing liquid (satin) allow her to blend her colors effortlessly. “If I want an opaque wash,” she says, “I use my paint with the matte medium. When I want a more transparent wash, I use the glazing liquid.”
Additionally, Cassells has found that these two products keep the overall shine of her work to a minimum. Without a reflective surface, her finished paintings are much easier to photograph; therefore, she waits to varnish them until after pictures are taken.
That Old-School Glow
To give her paintings a luminescent glow like those of the Old Masters, Cassells employs a clear-cut process. First, she dilutes Golden soft gel gloss with water at a 3-2 ratio. Then she applies the mixture to the finished dry surface. This provides an isolation coat between the paint and the varnish.
The artist makes her varnish by combining Golden MSA varnish — in both gloss and matte — with Golden MSA solvent. To avoid bubbling, she lets the varnish cure overnight before applying three coats, waiting 12 to 16 hours between applications.
Although Cassells tends to work on one painting at a time, she enjoys the evolution that comes with compiling a series. She finds the process neither repetitive nor boring. Rather, it gives her the opportunity to investigate a theme in depth. “While developing the e.strange series, for instance,” Cassells says, “I explored the directions in which contemporary digital communications are taking us and whether this constant exchange of information actually prohibits meaningful communication.” In _after, she found her contemporary models progressively inter- acting with the original sitters as the series developed. “Perhaps we aren’t disengaged from the world around us, but are actually willing and able to share our modern advantages,” the artist reflects.
Since 2009, Cassells’ work has been shown in more than 40 exhibitions world- wide, and she’s been awarded a solo exhibition to debut in Milan in 2017. Today, her work is part of both public and private collections in Belgium, Canada, Germany, Hungary and South Korea.
Meet the Artist
Laara Cassells is a Canada-based painter best known for her representational and portrait paintings. Her work has been shown in more than 40 exhibitions worldwide, including shows in Belgium, Germany, Hungary and South Korea. In 2013, her work was selected for NordArt in Germany as the sole Canadian representative. Visit her website at laaracassells.com.
Anise Stevens is an art critic, freelance writer, and adjunct assistant professor at Pasadena City College.