Two women in a dimly lit bar are in a world of their own, huddled over a tiny screen that casts a blue glow on their foreheads. A man lying under a beach umbrella focuses not on the gently lapping waves, the clear blue sky or the hazy mountain ridges nearby, but on his phone. Two buddies waiting for lunch in the fluorescent glare of an In-N-Out Burger ignore their sodas—and their surroundings. One looks up toward the ceiling, talking on a iPhone. The other looks down, texting.
These are the types of scenes Ashley Follmer renders in oil paint, paying lavish attention to the faces, hair, tattoos, makeup and body language of people going about their daily business in a world where no one makes eye contact.
But the existence she depicts isn’t particularly harsh or cold. Whether her subjects are in close quarters such as a bedroom or in a public place ignoring a Dale Chihuly sculpture or a spectacular view, there’s always a sense of intimacy—and an undeniable familiarity.
“I’ve caught myself—I think everyone’s caught themselves—just sitting on their phone,” said Follmer. “And then you’re like, ’I need to stop this and actually to step back and maybe enjoy my surroundings.’”
Even though the artist called herself out on not always being fully present, her paintings—which are extremely realistic when it comes to people’s postures and gestures, and more impressionistic when it comes to the bold colors that light their skin—don’t come off as all that critical of people’s relationships to their devices. But they don’t celebrate the technology either. It’s just there, being realistically ubiquitous. The images are carefully observed and serene, and they share more motivations with the starkly personal domestic documentary photography of the 1970s and ’80s than with the mid-20th-century realism paintings that they resemble. The surfaces are a bit Edward Hopper, but closer-cropped. The ethos is a little more Nan Goldin, without the black eyes and direct gazes, but with a strong sense that this, for better or worse, is how we experience each other’s company.
Follmer said the decision to portray her subjects engaged in an activity that sometimes irks her without casting judgment on them comes from “personal experience.”
“It’s easy to get your friends to be models, or your family members,” she said. “They’re sitting on the couch, and you just snap a picture. I think there’s a certain part of me that didn’t want to be as judgmental toward people that were in my life. But then it kind of then transferred to people I don’t know. … It became an observation in my daily life, where I liked seeing these people.”
Follmer attended an art magnet high school Las Vegas. She spent her first year of college at University of Nevada, Reno, at first considering a non-art major. She realized, as soon as she found herself drawing to pass the time in a journalism class, that without art officially front and center in her life, “I felt like a piece of me was missing.” She graduated with an art degree in 2015.
Now she works for the city, installing and maintaining public art, and teaches art classes at Nevada Museum of Art and Pinot’s Palette, a paint-and-sip place. While the people in her paintings appear detached, Follmer said that a large part of the reason she makes them is, “I just want that connection. I like being around people. That’s who I am.”