As artists, the sources of our inspiration are rarely chosen deliberately; they choose us, seizing our imagination and wringing from us works which offer a version of themselves filtered through our own particular psyches. Annamarie Pabst’s path from the porcine and balletic to the searing and bleak involves multiple continents and large temporal leaps. There will be no pat explanations, however; assigning fixed meaning to works of art is most often clumsy and destructive work, like trying to engrave the Gettysburg Address on a wad of wet kleenex.
In the non-collaborative arts it’s important to feel comfortable alone. Annamarie, born in 1982, was raised in a semi-rural suburb of St. Paul, Minnesota where she had few neighbors and spent a lot of time at the library alone staring at pictures in kids’ books. She’s the youngest of three children and so perhaps the romantic patina of childrearing had probably long worn off for her parents, who then left her to her own devices, i.e., drawing pictures of ballerinas and pigs. The mandates of subsequent art classes led her to become adept at all of the tedious disciplines of the visual arts, not just the aforementioned obsessions. Landscapes, portraiture and the dreaded still life were among the cruel disciplines shoved down her and other budding artists’ throats. After high school and all those terrible didactic exercises, she moved to Portland, Oregon to study at a tiny liberal arts institution called Lewis and Clark College. In an attempt at well-roundedness she studied English in addition to art. In our conversation she singled out for special praise a professor named Debra Beers, who stressed the importance of drawing as an end, not just a means to get you to the painting.
After a stint in a town on the rural west coast of Scotland she briefly moved back to Portland before fleeing that town’s comfortable, mild and grey pleasures for Vietnam, where she taught English and set to doing what has informed her art ever since: the contemplation of the human face. People with compelling visages abounded in Vietnam, but a side trip taken to Cambodia would end up being something of a developmental epiphany. In Phnom Penh, at the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, she gazed at acres of mug shots of political prisoners, victims of the Khmer Rouge in the mid to late 1970s. Before you, the reader, start flinging around accusations of moral dubiousness on the part of the artist, I’d invoke Picasso’s Guernica, a profound work which took as inspiration the savage bombing of innocent civilians during the Spanish Civil War; inspiration’s source is rarely a daffodil rapping politely on your door asking in a breathy whisper to be let in. You gotta let it in when it knocks. The four works that resulted from this experience, done in charcoal, are collectively called S21 Prison Series, a deliberately clinical title eschewing any attempt at conjuring contrived pathos. They were started in 2012, five years after moving to San Francisco, and finished in 2015.
Why San Francisco? It’s a gorgeous city full of asymmetry and a wide range (yes, still) of human types to gaze at. Since moving here she’s worked in a number of restaurants waiting tables and bartending while working on her oeuvre. The restaurant/bar industries of America’s major cities have provided generations of artists and musicians (including me) a way of making a middle class living while leaving large chunks of our brains free and available for doing what we try and be good at. Thank god for our culture’s stubborn insistence upon tipping generously. Also, working in the industry often makes us amateur anthropologists, which is of value in most artistic endeavors, but particularly in the literary and visual arts.
She likes San Francisco a lot and won’t be leaving anytime soon so feel free to enjoy her work at your leisure. That being said, get off your ass and get ye to an underpass in Soma (at 431 2nd St.) where she has posted another work. It’s called Division and consists, like S21 Prison Series, of a series of portraits. These, however, are painted and feature a more stark juxtaposition of light and dark. Deliberately simple and flat, their aesthetic faintly recalls (by her own admission) the work of pop artist Roy Lichtenstein. The Prison Series, by contrast, is deeply textured and realistic, capturing not just fear but defiance and anger in the faces of the prisoners. I like to think she’s always possessed that sympathetic gift, endowing tumescent sows with a rich inner life back in a rural Minnesota library.
To view more of her work and/or to contact Ms. Pabst, visit her website.
words by Matt Fink | art by Annamarie Pabst