“About-face”: Local artists reverse the social constructs of identity

Corey McFeeley / THE GATEPOST

By: Tessa Jillson

Curator Beth Kantrowitz created bkprojects as a versatile platform for independent curating. Her newest show, “about-face,” exhibited in the Mazmanian Art Gallery from Feb. 19 to March 22, displays a wide range of portraitures – recognizing the importance of diversity in a climate full of racism, sexism, and misogyny, according to Kantrowitz.

Dating back to the late 19th century, “about-face” was a sailing and military term meaning to turn in the opposite direction.

“That meaning remains, but about-face is now more commonly used figuratively to mean a complete, sudden change in position, action, principle, or attitude,” Kantrowitz wrote in her statement.

The exhibition featured a wide-range of artists and art styles. Artists Robert Da Vies, Maya Erdelyi, Elisa Hamilton, Pronzy, Kate True, Chad Joiner, Sue McNally, Kathleen O’Hara, and Roberta Paul all displayed work focusing on identity and connectivity.

Charla Jones, art enthusiast, said, “This is a great show. For me what’s great is it has so many different compositions of the face and you’re seeing the face in lots of different ways working with materials.”

Paul’s on-going series, “Naomie and Naima,” are water-based paintings of her two next-door neighbors. In the paintings, Paul has drawn the two sibling girls outlined in black, playing, usually with a red ball, situated on top of an earthy, neutral gold-green background. 

Paul said the ball symbolizes different things to everybody although, she originally incorporated the ball because it was something Naomie and Naima always played with. The ball is said to symbolize the world, growing up, and the “pulling” together and “pushing” apart dynamics in a relationship.

Paul added, the ball raises the questions, “What does it mean to black girls who are discovering their identity and what does it mean to be a sibling?”

Senior Rinnie Natanel said the red ball feels like Paul’s official “brand” in her series. 

Paul said her work is usually very “personal and universal.” 

She commented on being a white artist who draws black girls, saying she felt a personal connection to her two neighbors and that it wasn’t something superficial. 

After Naomie and Naima saw the paintings, they exclaimed, “Oh! We’re famous!” Paul said.

The four paintings in the gallery, out of the, so far, 20-piece series, range from $4,000 to $5,000 each.

Hamilton’s series, “Underline,” explores her own biracial identity, using gesso and crayon on paper to create continuous-line, blind-contour self-portraits. 

She said her self-contour self-portraits are done looking into the mirror at herself and drawing one continuous line, following the outline of her face without looking at the paper. 

“As a biracial person, how I am seen shifts in the eye of the beholder and depends on social context. Through these explorations, I contemplate my own visual form while relinquishing the ability to control how I look. I embrace a process of discovery that asks me to truly see myself, and ask the viewer to find me within, and beneath, the wandering lines,” she wrote in her statement. 

Her portraits at first were just black and white but, as Hamilton continued to draw herself, she added color, realizing she was actually a really colorful person. 

“Through this process, I have discovered that none of us are just one thing – we are all multicolored beings beneath the surface,” she wrote. 

Hamilton said while creating these portraits, she has learned to let go of perfection and embrace letting herself get used to being OK with not having her work look exactly like it’s imaged.

Her four portraits in the gallery are each $700. 

“A line can tell so much and I feel like these pieces are proof of that because this is a single line but it tells quite a story. Drawing is boundless,” she said. 

O’Hara’s series, “Pinkie,” is comprised of four latex, acrylic, and pencil collages on linen. The collages were originally shown installed on a wall with handmade wallpaper behind them, consisting of multiple small holes made from a hole punch, but the gallery showing only involved three of O’Hara’s $1,800 collages, without the wallpaper background.

Her work was inspired by her ongoing interest in Sigmund Freud’s “the uncanny,” the illusion that something traditional and homey can be uncomfortable and creepy at the same time. O’Hara compared this to automatons like the Chucky Doll. 

When O’Hara was a child, she said her mother used to take her to fake rooms, in IKEA for example, to go shopping.

“I guess I’m kind of intrigued by this whole narrative about how people relate to their domestic space. Is it safe or is it not?” she said. 

O’Hara borrowed the idea of the Victorian peep show, a box or exhibit where scenes are viewed through a small hole. 

She wrote in her artist statement, “These paintings place the viewer inside that peep show box and imagine anonymous voyeurs spying from beyond or whispering within the gallery wall.”

After her daughter wrote her thesis on “The Yellow Wallpaper” by Charlotte Perkins Gilman, O’Hara said she became captivated with the idea of a woman who became a part of the wallpaper and went mad. 

O’Hara said even though it’s old school, she is really interested in the idea of women being observers. Asking questions like, “What does that mean about identity and who they are?” 

When O’Hara was a student, she had a male teacher who told her that she can’t use the color pink because it’s a “loaded, feminine” color. Now, she emphasizes the color pink in her work, such as her paintings in the “Pinkie” series, creating a background, using rolled stencils, that resembles an ambiguous wooden pattern, a fingerprint, or flesh.  

The cutouts of eyes and mouths are taken from a bunch of different publications, scanned, then printed digitally. 

“I like the idea of this sort of surface realm, face realm. Are they going off? Are they coming in? Out? Are they on the surface? It’s this sort of ambiguity about where, which spaces are occupied, why, and what’s their relationship?” she said.

Jones said, “You’re looking at not just spaces but, techniques of capturing the face that are quite unique and very different. …  It’s not just the traditional portraits you’re used to seeing. … You’re seeing different concepts, expressions, and materiality.”

 Curator Kantrowitz said, “I always say a curator is only as good as the artist she works with. This show is just another example of that.”