Wednesday, April 29, 2009
Tuesday, April 28, 2009
Wednesday, April 15, 2009
Senior Project Position Paper
The project I am working on for my commencement exhibition works under the influence of Fayyum death masks. What is so stirring to me about these death masks is the gaze: the face of a once virile human existence staring back at you, flush with life, from beyond the grave. I have created six death masks in a similar style and technique to those of ancient Roman-occupied Egypt, and used the same figures in two large-scale paintings. The same six figures represented in the masks are present in each of two canvases and are reflected in mirrors within the imagery on the canvas. The reflections in the images are of the figures within the picture plane, as well as the reflections of the figures across from them. The monumental paintings face each other, with the nearly life-sized figures looking across at the other painting, within their own painting, and down at the passer-by. They cross-examine themselves, each other, in constant re-assessment.
My heart is in the past, in the generations of collective images and thoughts we as contemporary people can benefit from. My interest in the preservation of what knowledge we have of the ancient world and the expansion upon that knowledge is based on my belief that ancient life and art is a valid source of inspiration for all people in contemporary time. The largest source material for my painting comes from a deeply researched passion for ancient art history and I encapsulate this love into the study of humanity through portrait painting. I draw from sources from the beginning of time, inserting the poetry of ancient visual language into my work. It is essential to me to understand the beginnings, the nearly invisible forces of the ancient world that supports our current culture, materially and conceptually.
I am beginning to learn my place in the history of figurative painting. My large-scale paintings in this project are reminiscent of the tradition of large-scale romantic figurative painting, and my death masks carry on the burial traditions of ancient Egypt. I relate my style and traditionalism with paint to John Singer Sargent, who I admire most of all. I often relate to John Currin and Alice Neal for their interest in exaggeration, though I take it to a lesser degree. John Currin, like myself, also reflects traditional painting in his choice of subject matter and painterly technique. I am very interested in how Gillian Wearing uses the idea of the mask to re-examine her self and her family members, a very personal and preservative kind of self and familial possession. Tracey Emin uses the idea of the death mask, casting her face in bronze in a melted, very emotive and introspective stillness, like the reflective nature of my own work. I am very attracted to the work of Jenny Saville and Lucian Freud and how their techniques with thicknesses and layers of paint seems to create a mask on the faces and bodies of their models. Many artists drawn from ancient inspirations, like Don Brown who creates sculptures that emulate a Greco-Roman style, yet they fit tightly into a contemporary context, which is a goal I have to pursue. Other contemporary artists have been known to literally re-create classic pieces of art and reinterpret them into a contemporary dialogue, such as Melanie Manchot, Yasumasa Morimura, Glenn Brown, and Andrew Tift, or use vintage figures like in the work of Michaël Borremans and Mark Tansey.
The death masks that I am inspired by became the burial tradition in Roman-occupied Ptolemaic Egypt during the first-century AD. What is historically important about these masks is that they are the earliest known color representations of individuals to survive from the ancient world. Besides this, they represent the infectious nature of empirical cultures, being painting in the Greco-Roman realist style and of Greco-Egyptian upper-class citizens (called Hellenes), and attached to bodies mummified in the Egyptian style. For me, this is extreme joy rolled into one genre of artifact because these portraits combine all of the ancient cultures I love into one very apparent interaction, and also because they are the earliest portrait paintings of history. Most importantly, Fayyum death masks represent something much deeply poetic and expressive to me.
Death masks do not represent death, they were created as an attempt to preserve life. I find this cultural condition of how to deal with loss and the attempt to hold on to someone incredibly interesting and stimulating to my work. I find that portrait painting, especially of loved ones, becomes ones way to keep others. This is not only mourning, this is preservation as well as a celebration. In the end, there is only the memory of the self as the body is defeated. The death mask is a just that, a mask, a corpse pretending to live, a symbol of the loving family and friends that buried the deceased trying to hold on to the life that has passed, holding on to an just an image of identity.
The Fayyum death masks are at the beginning of a long tradition of ways to classify identity. I believe time has created increasing individualism in people. As cultures collide and have increasing contact through conquest, trade and global communications, a person pulls from multitudes of inspirations to form a significantly individualized self. Cultural history is a slow process of complicating isolated cultures and continually re-defining the individuals of the society. What results from this increase in multiple outlets and inspirations form other cultures is the loss of clearly defined cultural features, and the individual’s search for the self in this sea of contexts. We can never escape the enforcements of behavior or beliefs influencing us from our world. Increasingly so in this global community, we ourselves enforce our own entrapment in the search for what aspects of this wide world that we can identify ourselves to.
This project is a contemporary incorporation of my reflections on what history truly means to the living that remember it. It speaks of what creates the staying power of certain aspects throughout time, particularly significant objects or people, certain features of a personality or physical aspects that become important. It ascribes both power and weakness to death, as a way to lose, and as a way to preserve.
What issues I am dealing with in this commencement project are the concepts of identity and illusion that I have been struggling to clarify in my work and personal life, especially at my young age. An identity is trying to hold on to who you are, holding on to past experiences and accumulated knowledge. It even comes down to holding on to others who know how to label you, so you can have their assistance when you least know your self. All of the figures are within the same 20’s age range, and I feel that this period of time in life is a very distinct struggle with identity and finding the adult self. I am interested in the subject of portraiture and this intrinsically ties to identity, both in the cultural and individual sense. Besides being in love with the figure, I am searching for a way to use paint to speak to my ideas about mortality and the ephemeral nature of self and experience, and the illusion of identity.
Bierbrier, M.L. Portraits and Masks: Burial Customs in Roman Egypt. British Museum Press: London, 1997.
Doxiadis, Euphrosyne. The Mysterious Fayum Portraits. Thames and Hudson Ltd.: London, 1995.
Mullins, Charlotte. Painting People: Figure Painting Today. Thames and Hudson Ltd., Distributed Art Publishers: New York, 2006.
Nairne, Sandy, Sarah Howgate. The Portrait Now. Yale University Press: New Haven, CT, 2006.