Hung, Drawn, and Reported
It is still with us, this naïve belief in the truth of the photograph. As I write, skeptics are clamoring for photographic proof of Osama bin Laden’s execution, as if this evidence could not be scanned (scammed), photoshopped, (super) imposed, as if an event can only occur if the camera bears witness.
Wendy Elia works in series. In Half-Naked and The Visit life-size naked or semi-naked portraits of Elia’s friends and family confront our voyeurism and ask questions about painting’s relationship to authenticity and illusion; her self-portrait I Could Have Been A Contender lays her ageing body open to our scrutiny. Their content is a testament to the artist’s exploration of enforced domesticity; of the repetitive grind of work, child-rearing, care for the elderly, that creates a sense of entrapment within the home studio. The architecture and fittings of the latter – the boarded up fireplace and the laminate floor – are recurring motifs. Within those portraits lie smaller paintings: a network of allusions to familial relations, previous art works, and art history. These and Elia’s focus on the desire for escapism through mediated experiences (tv, the internet) prompted It Will Happen When You Least Expect It.
This series is about the futile quest for truth and the legacy of postmodernism. Words are slippery; the title is simultaneously a threat and a promise, the old adage about finding love and the stalker’s whisper. Film stills (from Lolita, Saboteur) are juxtaposed with scenes from soap operas (EastEnders’ Little Mo stunning her abusive husband with an iron), contemporary portraits (The Burlington Club), or CCTV footage (Princess Diana in the elevator of the Paris Ritz). Amid the new narratives implied through the paintings’ democratic presentation, themes emerge: child victims, female icons, acts of violence. Certain images are repeated. Here are paintings that try to act like photographs, that would defy the uniqueness of the art object, but they fail, caught out by their own nuances. Because these works are painterly, seducing us with their high key color palette and intimate scale, drawing us into their little worlds. If they infiltrated our consciousness as photographs, as part of the endless circulation of images sold, copied, downloaded, uploaded, overloaded… they take hold of us all over again as paintings. Even the most repellent subjects are rendered ambiguous: a terrorist morphing into Jesus, In Fidelity; the delicate stillness of hung men in Elsewhere.
As Elia’s practice evolves, the smaller images demand to be enlarged, posing further questions about the correlation between painterliness and iconicity. Her painting Madeleine is Missing (2010) of Madeleine McCann’s photograph is re-translated into the large-scale Missing. Sometimes an image accumulates resonances though, like dust drawn unto itself. So if Madeleine is Missing seemed poignant last year, in 2011 it risks appearing exploitative. And here’s the thing: images are unpredictable. And one day, when you’re not looking, they take you by surprise. They become iconic.
©Marie-Anne Mancio, 2011