Our im­per­fect view of fem­i­nine per­fec­tion

Werner’s sub­ver­sive portraits de­con­struct what passes for main­stream beauty to­day

Montreal Gazette - - Culture - JOHN POHL

The

im­ages of fem­i­nine beauty that bom­bard us in fash­ion mag­a­zines, posters, TV and on the In­ter­net are el­e­gantly sub­verted by Janet Werner in her ex­hi­bi­tion of paint­ings at Ga­lerie de l’UQAM.

Janet Werner: Another Per­fect Day presents portraits cre­ated through col­lages of body parts taken from those very same mass me­dia im­ages of fe­male per­fec­tion. The re­sult is an ex­hi­bi­tion of 29 portraits, mostly of women, fraught with emo­tional un­ease.

Werner works from the as­sump­tion that peo­ple re­act to im­ages of peo­ple they don’t know — like beau­ti­ful mod­els — by fan­ta­siz­ing about them. She, too, fan­ta­sizes as she cre­ates, in paint, a new type of anony­mous woman — a mon­ster com­posed of body parts that are dis­torted and out of pro­por­tion with each other.

Werner’s mon­sters, how­ever, seem vul­ner­a­ble in their sad­ness and un­cer­tainty. They are more hu­man as a col­lec­tion of parts than as ideals of fem­i­nin­ity.

It helps that the fig­ures in­habit an am­bigu­ous space be­fore a vague back­ground that, as she said in an in­ter­view, gives “no nar­ra­tive sup­port” to the fig­ure.

“It’s a one-on-one con­fronta­tion” with the viewer, she said. “You can project your own nar­ra­tive onto th­ese anony­mous fig­ures.”

The goal is to be con­vinc­ing enough that the viewer ex­pe­ri­ences the fig­ures as real peo­ple, she said. The dis­torted fig­ures are ugly, but are beau­ti­fully painted and re­tain a com­pli­cated, if twisted, hu­man­ity that in­ter­ests us and evokes our sym­pa­thy.

Werner said she was an ab­stract painter un­til about 15 years ago. Her ab­stract im­ages were biomor­phic, and the dots and lines of­ten con­fig­ured into faces, she said.

“I al­lowed el­e­ments to be­come faces, and I was ex­cited by the con­fronta­tion with a face,” she said. “Then I added a neck.”

Por­trait paint­ing has lit­tle ca­chet to­day, but Werner’s is re­ally so­cial com­men­tary. Her anony­mous fig­ures seem to feel the angst of our times. Trapped in their mon­strous bod­ies with of­ten lovely in­di­vid­ual parts, their faces be­tray fear and anx­i­ety.

And Werner al­ways leaves some­thing wrong in each por­trait: per­haps one of her lus­cious brush strokes sweeps across a fig­ure, or the eyes have ver­ti­cal black out­lines.

Ti­tles are of­ten im­por­tant: Af­ter Goya refers to the Span­ish painter’s por­trait of the Duchess of Alba, which is made con­tem­po­rary with a head­gear of items de­signed by Martha Stewart. Janet Werner: Another Per­fect Day Os­valdo Ramirez Castillo makes portraits of an un­sta­ble so­ci­ety.

The colour­ful paint­ings on My­lar he calls draw­ings, now on dis­play at Yves Laroche Ga­lerie d’art, are cer­tainly un­am­bigu­ous in their cul­tural con­text: the civil war in El Sal­vador — and its af­ter­math — that Castillo fled as a boy with his fam­ily in 1989.

Th­ese are im­ages of hell that Hierony­mus Bosch might have made. There is blood, and there are leer­ing killers and peo­ple with sev­ered limbs. Great num­bers of sol­diers, peas­ants, dogs and mytho­log­i­cal crea­tures are in­ter­twined in Castillo’s draw­ings, but his su­perb drafts­man­ship en­sures that each in­di­vid­ual is clearly seen.

Castillo said in an in­ter­view that his im­ages come from folk­lore, pre-Columbian mythol­ogy, in­dige­nous and re­li­gious iconog­ra­phy, as well as North Amer­i­can pop

Werner’s mon­sters seem vul­ner­a­ble in their sad­ness and

un­cer­tainty.

cul­ture and graf­fiti. There is also the magic re­al­ism of Latin Amer­i­can lit­er­a­ture, and the sto­ries told to him about the civil war.

Another in­flu­ence is Miguel An­gel As­turias, a Gu­atemalan who used pre-Columbian mythol­ogy to write about 20th-cen­tury strug­gles. Fight­ers in the civil war used char­ac­ters from his nov­els as their noms de guerre, Castillo said.

An es­say by Me­gan Bradley in the ex­hi­bi­tion cat­a­logue speaks of the co­ex­is­tence of beauty and the grotesque in Castillo’s work.

“I am cap­ti­vated by the iri­des­cence he achieves in the folds of fab­ric draped upon a fig­ure of Je­sus that is piled within a pro­ces­sion of death and gore,” she writes. “I revel in Castillo’s use of vi­brant colour to por­tray the laugh­ing face of a lion’s mask adorn­ing the bru­tal killing ma­chine” that is a gang mem­ber about to com­mit a mur­der.

But Castillo doesn’t con­demn. His fig­ures are ac­tors in a tragic drama.

“The gangs were cre­ated by the civil war,” he said. The chil­dren of the par­tic­i­pants in the war, in­clud­ing mem­bers of death squads, grew up to be vi­o­lent.

“I’mnot­de­mo­niz­ingthem,” he said. “It’s what hap­pens when you have a civil war.” It’s the sea­son for giv­ing, and many artists hope they will sup­ply the gifts.

One such hope­ful group of 18 artists is open­ing its stu­dios in an old in­dus­trial build­ing in Park Ex­ten­sion on Dec. 14 to show and sell paint­ings, sculp­tures, comic books and wood­craft.

It’s an an­nual open-stu­dios event for the group known as the Long Haul. Artists and writ­ers will “open their dens of cre­ativ­ity and de­mys­tify their pro­cesses,” said Heidi Barkun, who will show en- caus­tic paint­ings and sculp­tures, and sell her re­claimed wood frames and mir­rors.

Other mem­bers in­clude Kate Puxley, who will in­tro­duce visi­tors to her world of art and taxi­dermy, and con­cep­tual artist Pe­tra Mueller, who will ex­hibit her wa­ter­colour project about kiss­ing. Adam Leith Goll­ner, win­ner of the Que­bec Writ­ers’ Fed­er­a­tion non-fic­tion prize for The Book of Im­mor­tal­ity, will be in his stu­dio chat­ting and sell­ing books.

The Long Haul com­mu­nity of artists is fea­tured on an episode of Only in Mon­treal, Satur­day at 7 p.m. on Ci­tytv. The artists are in­ter­viewed in the stu­dios and at an ex­hi­bi­tion fundraiser.

JANET WERNER

Janet Werner cre­ates a new type of anony­mous woman, a mon­ster com­posed of body parts dis­torted and out of pro­por­tion.

OS­VALDO RAMIREZ CASTILLO

The Long Haul ex­hi­bi­tion and open-stu­dios event takes place Dec. 14 from noon to 4 p.m. at 450/454 Beau­mont Ave. For more in­for­ma­tion, visit th­e­long­haul­montreal.blogspot.ca.

Os­valdo Ramirez Castillo’s sub­ject is El Sal­vador’s civil war.

con­tin­ues to Dec. 14 at Ga­lerie de l’UQAM, 1400 Berri St. For more in­for­ma­tion, visit ga­lerie.uqam.ca.

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