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Originally published Friday, June 8, 2012 at 5:32 AM

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Art review

Painter Stephen O'Donnell: in women's dress, but not a drag

Winston Wachter Fine Art gives Portland artist Stephen O'Donnell, who paints himself in outlandishly witty 18th-century guises, his first one-man show in Seattle. Through Aug. 31, 2012.

Seattle Times arts writer

IF YOU GO

Stephen O'Donnell: 'Des jeux sérieux de beauté'

10 a.m.-5 p.m. Mondays-Saturdays through Aug. 31, Winston Wachter Fine Art, 203 Dexter Ave. N., Seattle; free (206-652-5855 or www.winstonwachter.com).
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There's an anecdote, possibly apocryphal, about David Bowie strolling in drag through a Texas town in the 1970s when a policeman challenged him, "Hey — where're you going in that woman's dress?"

Bowie's reply: "It's not a woman's dress. It's a man's dress."

The extraordinary gowns Portland artist Stephen O'Donnell dons in his self-portraits might be seen as "men's dresses." Certainly, between his five-o'clock shadow and his chest hair, there's no attempt on O'Donnell's part to pretend he's anything other than male — and it's not exactly a drag-show-in-paint he's serving up in these technically dazzling, giddily witty pictures.

"A lot of it is who I am on the inside, I guess," he said earlier this week when he was in town with his wife for the opening of "Des jeux sérieux de beauté" ("Serious Games of Beauty"), his first solo show at Winston Wachter Fine Art.

"I don't want to be a woman," he adds, "but there are lots of aspects that I like. And in a lot of ways, it's much easier to paint it than to do it in real life, where it's quite uncomfortable."

"Des jeux sérieux de beauté" provides a perfect introduction to O'Donnell's work. Its 12 paintings feature him in masculine as well as feminine guise. The references to 18th-century dress, hairstyle and décor are meticulously researched and exquisitely detailed in their execution.

In person, O'Donnell is the polar opposite of his painted personae. Dressed in jeans and a dark shirt, with his hair cut short and his eyes half-hidden behind decidedly non-18th-century eyeglasses, he's surprisingly self-deprecating about his accomplishments, starting with the fact that he is, amazingly, self-taught.

He drew instinctively, he says, from an early age. "I don't remember not doing it. My mom always says I was scribbling all over everything when I was little."

Apart from some guidance he got at age 16 on how to achieve certain flesh tones in his work, he had no formal training. Instead he developed his style from close observation of classical paintings.

Still more surprising is the fact that he can name the exact month — May 1995 — when, at age 37, he "became" a painter, after years of odd retail jobs and unemployment.

"I didn't know that I wanted to be an artist, even though that was my total identity as a child. I didn't know what to do with it. I got lots of mixed messages about that."

On bringing his first efforts to a Portland gallery, he was immediately given a show.

Little wonder. Each work at Winston Wachter has painterly command and dramatic flair. In "Judith and Holopherne," his riff on the biblical tale, he's both the triumphant Judith and the beheaded Holofernes (the Assyrian general who threatened to destroy her hometown). The fact that beheader and beheaded, alike, are O'Donnell just adds to the painting's addled brilliance.

"Plus féroce que ce qu'on pourrait croire" ("Tougher Than He Looks" in English — O'Donnell is partial to French titles) finds O'Donnell as a dandy who's robed, gloved, brocaded and lace-and-satin-bedecked to an absurd degree. But his sternly pursed expression, as he stares down at a little bird perched on his hand, makes it clear that you would never want to mess with him.

Asked to speculate on what makes him tick as a painter, he cites his love of portraiture.

Still, these aren't literal self-portraits, he stresses; and they aren't derived from photographs of himself in fancy dress. While he'll work from a snapshot of his face, all the rest of the costume and setting details come from research. He'll study what the real thing looked like, then come up with his own design in that style: "I like trying to make it as true as possible."

What's the one liberty he'll take with images of himself wearing Marie Antoinette finery?

"Obviously," he laughs, "that's not my waistline."

In his next paintings, O'Donnell plans on moving a whole century forward — to the 1880s. "The bustle and all that stuff," he says. "I don't want to be in a rut."

Michael Upchurch: mupchurch@seattletimes.com

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