Our imperfect view of feminine perfection
Werner’s subversive portraits deconstruct what passes for mainstream beauty today
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
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.