Sunday, May 30, 2010

Emily Starr at Studio M

I wanted to see this show not just to write about it, but because of my renewed interest in portraiture. Young artists do a lot of self portraits. Ms. Starr points out why in her exhibition statement in which she explains that one’s own self is a cheap and easy source of imagery, ready at any moment, and the one best understood. She graduated from Otterbein College in 2009 with a BA in drawing, photography and art history. With that in mind, I approached this show as a teachable moment for all up and coming artists.

Her opening statement posted on the wall explains the premise for this body of work. She has an interest “in the visual dynamic between the organic form of the figure and the structural lines that both surround and obscure it”. The next paragraph contains the phrase “organic imagery of human form and the abstraction of lines and shapes”. If I were her faculty mentor, I would have suggested that the same info not be repeated so as to cut down the length of the statement, be clear, direct and precise. In this now common world of constant contact via text, tweets, internet and blogging (gulp), people tend to get wordy so this is an understandable consequence. (I get very wordy too so I am also guilty as charged)

Studio M shows are hung by museum staff, not the artist from what I understand, so decisions are made regarding placement that are beyond the control or intent of the artist. My advice would be the same as that given to the Jackson kids in a recent post, edit. Remove those works that are incongruous to the whole show and thereby eliminate the one or two clunkers that can bring down a whole presentation by a notch or two. The person who hangs the show does so with work provided. It is not their job to decide what is hung, but in this show, one can tell that an effort was made to make it work.

There are 23 pieces in the show, a mix of stained canvas, charcoal on masonite, mixed media on masonite, mixed media on matt board, ink and acrylic on paper, and acrylic on canvas. Edit. Only one of the mixed media on matt board is under glass which I found to really elevate the quality of the work just by giving it that extra edge of professional presentation.

The ink and acrylic diptych and triptych pieces are wonderful little images which would make a complete series unto themselves. The technique lends itself to exploration beyond her own image. One can see her photography and drawing skills coming together for a successful resolution. The charcoal on masonite portraits are her strongest works as far as markings, surface and presentation. Now let’s talk about self portraits as imagery, or even portraits in general as I found similar issues with her images as I did with the ones in the Jackson show. The Jackson student’s problems appear to stem from a dependency on the use of digital photos from which to then “copy” the picture. Ms. Starr’s, I suspect, comes from the common mistake of looking directly at one’s own image and not correcting the distortion caused by the artists own perspective. We don’t see the forms so as much as we see the “face” when looking at our own image, and we see it at eye level, hence the neck tends to get shortened in translation. Artists must compensate for this foreshortening caused by our eye level and add some distance to the neck.

The second common error is to forget that the eye is actually an “eye ball”. If one were to remove the eye, it is a spherical shape that is then set back into another round shape, the socket of the skull, forming a dome within a depression. The eye lids (upper AND lower) then sit on top of this dome as an extension of the depression. This whole eye structure forms a rather undulating landscape of skin and reflective tissue. To make the eyes look real and to give them a life and a soul, one must not forget this structure. The upper lid (under normal lighting circumstances, not some weird flashlight under the chin situation) will cast a shadow onto the upper curve of the eye ball where is slides under the skin of the lid. A darkening of tone will set the eye back into the socket. The second necessary element is the “eye light” on the surface of eye, usually located just off center of the pupil, touching the edge of the iris. The eye is covered by a protective and moist lens that reflects light. Just that simple speck of white on a portrait will put the life back into the face.

A third common mistake is to draw the head tilted back just a bit too much. Hence what I call the “pig nose” happens. This is a view of the nostrils seen at an odd and unflattering angle. Nostrils are a problem for many of us anyway and best depicted as a hint of existence and not as fully developed features of the face. Look carefully at the images in a magazine ad that features a face and you will see that the nose is completely airbrushed so as to draw attention to the eyes and lips. Now I am not saying there is anything wrong with an artist studying the structure of the face and working on nuances of the nostril, just that these aren’t the best works to put into a show.

Another observation is that Ms. Starr has a young face and this is certainly not a problem or mistake. Drawing a youthful face is challenging as it has no wrinkles or bags, or folds or creases, or age spots, etc. So there is not as much to draw upon as far as interesting features and facial landmarks are concerned to contribute to the composition. Youthful artists have to find something that uses light patterns and for the young face this usually is that depression above our lip and under our nose which thus gets its own center stage. Since Ms. Starr has some crazy hair which lends itself to interesting mark making, she balances things out nicely enough. But again, I say edit.

I predict that we will be seeing more of her work on the local arts scene. She has several strong initial techniques to pursue as a complete body of work and may do well to leave a few other media behind. Her integration of organic and structural forms is beginning to develop, especially on the masonite and charcoal pieces. I would like to see more of those. The smaller photographic like ink and acrylic pieces should be developed as well. Overall, it was a good job on staging a show and introducing us to her work and vision and I wish her continued success in the realm of portraiture.

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