Review: You’re Portrait by Lucy Farmer

Thro’ Painted Mirrors Clear – Shadows of the World Appear
You’re Portrait

Gallery 2,
Level 1, 119 Hopkins St
Wed 8 July – Sat 25 July, 2009

In a long, narrow space, glowing with rich burgundy paint, seven portraits are arranged along the walls. Eight sets of eyes look out from painted confines, seeming to observe and gain life from the return of a viewers gaze. As Michel Foucault discusses in his Order of things: an archaeology of the human sciences (1970), within such portraits, though the subjects gaze at an invisible point, we, the viewer instantly recognize this point as being our own image— our own bodies, faces and eyes. Standing within the installation of paintings, we see ourselves positioned in the act of looking, and being looked at, engaged in the performance of viewing.

Each painting arrests the viewers gaze at the mid point- our eyes meeting painted ones- with varying degrees of intensity. ‘So What Do You Think (Sister)’ a full length portrait of a jaded socialite, standing against a mottled white background, hand stretched out idly, holding a glass with the last remaining dregs of white wine, is an exception, however. The subject gazes introspectively into space, and is unaware of being watched. We witness a private moment where the glittering veneer of the vivacious girl has slipped and fallen to reveal a world weary face. Distant and non-communicative, she looks past us, seeing perhaps an image of herself in place of whatever object she has trained her eyes to contemplate.

Her features emerge from a heavily textured painted surface formed from scraps of paper glued and taped together, that has a curiously reflective quality, like a mirror. Within this cold, bleached ‘mirror’ Sister stands passively, she does not examine herself and is indifferent to the gaze of a spectator. It is a strange image to encounter, because it could be a reflection of ourselves at this very exhibition. We, as viewers, find ourselves communicating with the mirror-like portrait not unlike the way in Blake Edwards 1961 film, ‘Breakfast at Tiffany’s’, the garishly made up woman in the fabulously comedic party scene engages with a full length mirror, looking into its highly polished depths— first laughing appreciatively at her own image and then as time progresses crying hysterically, watching trails of thick makeup stream down her cheeks.

The consciousness of being watched- of positioning the body in relation to self representation is further explored in ‘Self’, the artists self portrait, positioned on the adjoining wall to ‘So What Do You Think (Sister)’. Reminiscent of a scene from a burlesque, Lucy depicts herself lounging seductively upon an expensively upholstered and ornately carved chair, looking into a hand mirror that has been angled so her eyes meet our own. The casual arrangement of Lucy’s body evinces an indifference to the viewer, however the position of the mirror reflecting with peculiar intensity her gaze, attests to the self consciousness of her pose. We do not feel uncomfortable though, because however much her compelling gaze challenges our own, we have been invited to view Lucy in her pose.

This self portrait, like the accompanying works is mounted in an elaborately modeled papier mache ‘gilded’ frame. Against the deep burgundy walls, the painting surmounted in gold, resonates with Baroque imagery, however precious metals have not been transformed to heavenly pigments to illuminate Lucy’s portraits, rather the grand Baroque gesture has been tempered by the purposeful use of base materials, such as scraps of paper, masking tape and muddy paint colours, and slight distortions and inconsistencies in the rendering of the subjects bodies and faces. This post modern reference to the Baroque can be seen in ‘Only (a) Child’, the portrait of the small black lap dog seated on a plush velvet cushion lavishly decorated with gold tassels and passementerie gilding. Lapdog’s are an agent of comic relief in heavily posed 17th Century paintings. They can be found positioned with their owners wearing expressions of resigned martyrdom, pulling at the elaborate stiff silk skirts of their mistresses, or fighting with cats who have dared to come before their regal presence. Lucy’s dog stares mournfully out of the picture plane, its head slightly slumped, and black beady eyes glazed over.

Across the room, we follow the disconsolate gaze of the dog to encounter the alarmingly intense glare of ‘Mother’, the most intense portrait in the room. The subject is seated on a chair and her hands fall heavily upon its wooden arms. Her ruddy, weather beaten face with its steel blue eyes ringed in black is set in an uncompromising expression of quiet dominance, made somewhat frightening by her dark head of hair winged like the grotesque serpent coils of Medusa. This work has been exhibited in an alternate installation involving its placement in an empty room with a chair positioned directly in front. Upon entering the room, viewers felt compelled to sit before the subjects’ fixed gaze. Installed within a group, ‘Mother’; is no less disturbing. In the passage of looking, one might become absorbed with another portrait, but Mother’s face, with her deadly eyes, follows and haunts our progress through the room.

Like the woman who looks into the lake in Sylvia Plath’s poem ‘The Mirror’ (1961), bending over to find her face floating in the liquid surface, we search the reaches of Lucy’s portraits, to find out what we really are:

    ‘I am silver and exact. I have no preconceptions.
    Whatever I see I swallow immediately
    Just as it is, unmisted by love or dislike.
    I am not cruel, only truthful…
    Most of the time I meditate on the opposite wall.’

    The Mirror, Sylvia Plath, 1961
Jessica Piesse, 2009

By Jessica Piesse

Jessica Piesse

Jessica Piesse is a recent Bachelor of Fine Art Honours Graduate from the Victorian College of the Arts, and is currently completing a Masters of Curatorship at the University of Melbourne. She is employed as the Marketing and Curatorial assistant at two commercial galleries, and is a Research Associate at Museum Victoria. Recent publications include ‘Fixing Holes- Ravelling the Hanging Walls of Babylon’, Catalogue Essay for Kevin Chin, ‘Ruined’, Kings Artist Run Initiative, June 5th – 27th 2009, and ‘Thro’ Painted Shadows Clear, Shadows of the World Appear’, Catalogue Essay for Lucy Farmer, ‘You’re Portrait’, Trocadero Art Space, July 11th – 25th 2009.