Breaking away from both traditional representations of portraiture and the current mainstream cultural shift of the “self,” this exhibition brings together three artists who examine and redefine the portrait, transforming narratives and challenging social norms of gender and identity.
Sharon VanStarkenburg describes her recent series Bitter Water as making “reference to art history, pop culture, Bible stories and folklore, generally focused on female protagonists seeking connection and empathy with other living things.” The feminist retelling is a common thread in VanStarkenburg’s practice. Growing up in a puritanical home, the artist rejects the religion of her youth and adopts this form of storytelling in order to reinvent the narrative. Many times, in these types of fictional stories, we see women presented with trial by ordeal, an ancient judicial practice where one must survive torture, poison or beatings to prove one’s innocence. VanStarkenburg dismantles these traditions in order to create new mythologies where her female leads are authoritative, independent and have gone rogue. With figures strange and mythical, presented in surrealist compositions, these scenes read as fictional, yet the retelling of these tales makes apparent how much these historical narratives influence our ongoing relationship with identity and our relationship to gender.
Similar to VanStarkenburg, Jemimah Lorissaint places the female figure in focus. Combining the experiences of others and representing them in her own self-image, she has created introspective portraits that express the changing psychological trauma and vulnerability of femininity. A ubiquitous example of modern portraiture can be seen across social media platforms, where edited, filtered versions of our best selves (or the versions we are assuming) are being represented. Breaking from the mainstream expectation of the selfie, Lorissaint forces the viewer to connect with the work by sharing the emotional journey of the artist, through both torment and indifference. The artist explains: “I hope my portraits will express the depth of my personality, as each one offers a different story. I also hope that the audience can relate to it because I believe my work has an emotional (good or bad) element to it.” Being less concerned with the figure itself and more focused on the emotion conveyed, the artist compares our true selves with the ones adapted for the public sphere.
Portraits have quickly become a hot commodity in popular culture with the ease of our smartphones. As we enjoy the power and freedom of self-expression in this form, it raises questions regarding authenticity. What is the nature of portraiture, where does it stand today and where is it going? Peter Shmelzer holds criticisms on the progression of portraiture. In his new series, Lesser Royalty, he is looking at mainstream media and the concept of celebrity and presenting us with the question: what constitutes a personality worth adoring? Shmelzer commonly uses creatures to deliver his message in his artistic practice, and within this new work, he bestows us with inanimate objects with human faces, wearing crowns and sitting upon thrones. The work recalls the origins of portraiture, where only the wealthy had their portraits painted. Here, Shmelzer has replaced the wealthy with… a marshmallow. They appear genderless except for the titles, which hint upon traditional gender roles: princess, duke and earl. The artist evokes mystique by making a historical reference to a monarchy and dehumanizes them through these anthropomorphic forms. The work is satirical and absurd but holds a darker commentary. In a world where everything is experienced through a filtered lens, how do we value identity and who controls the narrative?
Image: Jemimah Lorissaint, Imperfectum II (detail), 2021, oil on canvas, 20" x 20"