An image of a human being is never as simple as it seems. A painting or photograph of a person raises a million questions, sometimes overt, often hidden, frequently without logical answer. Every portrait creates many pictures; of the subject, of the artist, and of each individual who views it. The most intimate portrait of a loved one becomes distanced and anonymous once it is "art," once it is shared. If the subject is nude, whether in an old master's oil painting or crowded onto a page of internet porn, a whole array of terms spring to mind: objectification, voyeurism, exhibitionism. We think about possession, desire, changing ideals of beauty and health. We think about the unknowable thoughts moving through the head of this anonymous figure frozen, static, in a moment in time. In the history of art, of course, it was men painting women, and owning paintings of women, and women submitting passively to their gaze. But all of this is changing as artists start to question what it means to look and to be looked at, what it means to capture beauty and desire.
Four Artspan artists question what it means to portray the human body and face.
Sharon VanStarkenburg's images are beautiful and challenging, and she says, "As of late I am becoming increasingly overt in the feminist messaging in my paintings. I am compelled to produce work that resides in the push and pull area between empowerment and subjugation; slipping, falling, kicking, hitting and flailing into each side.
"The subjects for my series evolve in a continuing exploration of psychology of self by aggregating childhood experiences, nostalgia, psychological states, ancestry, sex, gender and identity. The work can be derived from very personal and intimate experiences, but presented as it is for public consideration, it becomes fiction on which the viewer can project and take away from. The female body is often referenced in my work, either by its presence or absence, as the impetus by which the drama unfolds.
"The heroines in my series The Debutants are girls on the brink of adulthood, with signifiers of this coming-of-age such as wisdom teeth, tiaras, burgeoning sexuality and makeup that runs amuck. The debutante has traditionally been a young woman presented to adult society with ceremonies, proclaiming her a woman and eligible for marriage. In this series the pieces exist in a shifting time, so that they are both the young woman anticipating womanhood and a memory of herself from some time in the future. The desperate desire for beauty is pervasive in these pieces. There is an aura of violence and taboo in the work as the pubescent girls are sexualized and hyperfeminized. They are at once timid and bold, attempting to assert some autonomy and sass, but are also overlaid with expectations and reservations. The work contains the struggle between what the heroine chooses and what is chosen for her, and attempts to understand which is which."
The off-kilter framing and unususal positioning of Cary Lee's subjects make for portraits that are disarmingly intimate, moving, and full of questions. You sense that you're witnessing a rare moment of connection, frozen in time.
"These drawings illustrate a desperate longing for something other than sexual in my relationship with men, and a change from being the one consumed, to being the consumer.
"Drawing men allows me to take my experiences with them, back to a safer place, whilst sometimes echoing darker feelings such as rejection, loneliness and invisibility.
"The subjects in Gaze were colleagues, and men I’d met from Grndr. After a number of frustrating years looking for a meaningful relationship on a sex app, I decided to turn it into something more useful, inviting men to let me draw them. The process worked quite well. I was finally meeting men and having a new, non-sexual, relationship with them. There was still the risk of sex, of being consumed, however I used my pencil to create distance, objectivity and protection.
Lance Turner asks, "When we look at Manet’s A Bar at the Folies Bergére, why don’t we see the viewer reflected in the painted mirror? It is from this question that I have become interested in a painting’s ability to convey and distort multiple realities. I am interested in a kind of imagery that is involved with framing experience. The narratives in my work incorporate the viewer and their space as an extension of the space inside the painting. I do this by depicting spatial loops, using parallel mirrors, and other kinds of infinity.
"Square (oil and acrylic on canvas, 72x48in, 2010) is an image of Casey Lynch, also known as Square. The grid is made up of squares, the high contrast colors are based on the object way that he thinks, his artwork, and the work of Sol Lewitt and Ad Rienhardt, which are artists that influence Casey's work, and this painting. Painting is a way for me to relate ideas about people and art history so that when I make a portrait, it is in an expanded sense that is more than just a likeness. It is a painting as a synthesis of reductivist aesthetics and the maximalist intention of building a painting by relating as many references as possible. The photographic space within the painting is broken up so that each photographic increment is separated. This allows the photographic elements to be seen as a system of mark-making, which negates the overall illusion in favor of a more conceptually pure reference to Photorealism in its original sense. It is based on the process of transcribing a photographic image onto another surface through the use of paint. Conversely, the striped increments can be seen within a Minimalist context so that every stripe on the canvas is a one-inch measurement of the painting as a real object that exists in our space. They are therefore realistic, while the photographic increments are decidedly illusionistic. It is this reversal of ordinary perspective that acts as a filter for everything I paint, to actually view this painting is to be engaged with it as a situation, and therefore engages the viewer even physically into an experience that acts as a mirror to our reality.
"In Hannah, (oil and acrylic on canvas, 72x48in, 2010) every element, from Hannah's earrings to the triangle grid that is based on a poster from the Thirteenth Secession Exhibition, the subject matter in this painting is heavily influenced by Art Nouveau. The colors are based on Hannah, the girl in the photograph that the painting is about, and the environment surrounding her when the photo was taken. But the subject of this painting is painting itself more than Hannah because the painting is abstract. It is about the syntax and subject of a painting in relation to that of a photograph. The idea of combining abstract increments beside photographic increments is not to revive illusionism. There is no illusion or traditional realism in the painting at all.
"This painting is about distortion of our perception of reality. It shows that the language of painting as the antithesis of the way we perceive our reality. What seems realistic, the photographic increments within the painting, are records of abstract mark-making based on information from a camera. And the seemingly abstract increments are real measurements of the area of this painting as an object that exists in our space.
"The photographic elements are records of the transcription of the information from a photograph onto a canvas. The striped increments serve as interruptions in the photographic information so that each increment of the painting can be read individually. The act of reading it becomes a situation in itself, and it becomes less static. It is an extension of the Photorealist concern of making Process Art based on a photograph."
Elizabeth Jameson's vivid, compelling prints go deeper than most portraits of people, beyond the skin, to the body within, and they raise questions about what it means to be healthy, what it means to be beautiful, and how these questions translate to works of art.
"Neurologists diagnose and track the progression of Multiple Sclerosis (MS) through MRIs of the brain. For many patients, these images of the brain are frightening and ugly, a reminder that something is wrong or diseased deep within. My diagnosis with MS initiated a fascination with these eerie images, which I found mesmerizing. In my artwork, I reinterpret these brain scans and use them to explore the wonder and beauty of all brains, including those with disease. I want my images to create a view of medical imaging technology that is accessible to those who view these revealing pictures as subject, doctor, or scientist. I celebrate the brain as a stunningly beautiful, awe-inspiring organ. My art is a tool to release MRIs of their power to terrify and become, instead, an entry into the mystery of the brain. I transform MRIs from sterile, black and white simulacra to images of color and vibrancy. I consciously delve into the imperfection of the human body, and visually exalt its flaws.
In Celebration: angiogram of Mark's brain (solar plate etching on paper), the blood vessels in the brain are dancing and holding hands in joyous celebration. The image is another example of discovering romance and beauty in the brain.
Valentine: coronal view of the brain stem, cerebellum, and lateral ventricles (solar plate etching on paper) displays the heart-like structure that appears in the brain, in all its warmth and mystery.