What happened to your face?

Pawel Sliwinski
Pawel Sliwinski

I love portraiture – painting portraits and looking at portraits. I never tire of the human face and the complex nuances that our cognitive faculties allow us to interpret. Though Picasso and Braque broke with the conventional portrait decades ago, there is a growing number of contemporary artists that are deliberately distorting, manipulating and warping and even eliminating the facial construct.

Sascha Braunig, Self-portrait
Sascha Braunig, Self-portrait
Marco Grassi
Marco Grassi

What I find interesting is that this direction is the polar opposite of what the media is feeding us. The artistic trend expresses a creative push-back against idealism and a conscious rejection of flawless complexions, perfect feature ratios, homogeneity. Artists are mutating the face to almost alien proportions and merging human and animal characteristics. 

Susan-te-kahurangi-king
Susan-te-kahurangi-king

I believe that these works also convey a sense of chaos and unrest in response to a world that appears to be falling apart and spinning out of control. Other than the intellectual drive to break the boundaries of painting, perhaps similar tensions and uncertainty in Europe prior to WWI played a role in influencing artists like Picasso to experiment with faceting and breaking up the face, where all human emotion is communicated.

And of course, digital tools have added a whole new spin to re-constructing and re-inventing the face, pixel by pixel. Perfect example is Dutch artist Tim Coster’s self-portrait (below) of which he says:”This self-portrait is about digitizing my own appearance. The next step is to upload my ghost in it so I’ll be able to live on digitally after I die”.

While musing about the direction and future of portraiture I did a small painting (3.5″ x 3.5″) of five sisters based on a photograph from the ’60’s. I used watercolor and acrylics over a print transfer of my photocopied sketch applied to Aquaboard with acrylic gel medium. Any thoughts?

'Five sisters', Lilianne Milgrom
‘Five sisters’, Lilianne Milgrom  $50

NB: Four months after writing this post, ARTSPACE MAGAZINE wrote an article about the same trend (I beat them to it!). They have put a name on this phenomenon – Figural Non-Objectivity!

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Lessons learned

ImageI have said this before and I’ll say it again – every time I take in an art exhibition I come away with something for my own practice even if I didn’t particularly like the art. I recently saw some outstanding exhibitions in Washington DC, Philadelphia and New York City that inspired me in different ways.

The Ai Weiwei exhibition at the Hirshhorn Museum is larger than life, like the artist’s persona. For fans of this contemporary Chinese artist/dissident/activist, it is nirvana.  His work conforms to his belief that “art is not a secret code” and that is precisely what makes his art so accessible. Weiwei is that rare artist who makes Art That Matters.

LESSON LEARNED: Weiwei utilizes the simplest of materials and objects (see bicycles above) to make the grandest and most sweeping social commentary. Even though I don’t have scores of assistants and an unlimited budget, it is good to be reminded that as an artist, you don’t need to overreach and get too complicated to get your message across.

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Two of Weiwei’s minimalist Installations of compressed tea leaves (top) and bath-sized ceramic vessels filled with cultured pearls (bottom) are signature Weiwei – exquisitely understated, masterfully executed and heart-stoppingly deep. An absolutely must-see show, closing February 24, 2013.

In Phildelphia I visited the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts (PAFA) to see The Female Gaze:Women Artists Making Their World, which nicely dovetails with my current preparation for a solo show of Parisian portraits in July.

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Viola Frey’s gigantic ceramic portrait with vessel
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Portia Munson’s painting of her underwear

LESSON LEARNED: The hugely disparate takes on portraiture just underscore the uniqueness of the individual and the singularity of the artist’s vision. Sharing a peek (below) at my own intimate apparel version – porcelain panties!

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Of course I could barely tear myself away from the recently renovated Rodin Museum also in Philadelphia. Rodin’s sculptures take my breath away – every single time, without fail. They positively contort in their joy and in their hell. I couldn’t resist a quick pencil drawing (below) which resulted in being invited to the Saturday sketch sessions. Too bad I don’t live in Philly!

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One more exhibition worth noting is Brooklyn Museum’s Mickalene Thomas’ shiny, oversized, brilliant exhibition Origin of the Universe. Thomas’ paintings are a cross between collage and patchwork quilts – she paints on wood in acrylics and oils and then embellishes them with hundreds of sequins and crystal beads. Her shiny bling take on black women within the context of iconic paintings by Courbet and Manet are simply amazing. Here is her take on Monet’s dining room at Giverny:

ImageLESSON LEARNED: There is no material or medium that cannot be transformed into fine art in the hands of a truly distinctive talent. So go off and see art. It is inspiring, educational and visually exciting!