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Friday, September 2, 2011

Ultraportraiture: Morag Charlton’s new paintings of Facebook profile pictures

Posted by on Fri, Sep 2, 2011 at 6:43 AM

Although it’s not always activated in painting, scale is one of the most interesting aspects of an artifact. Monumental garden sculptures by Henry Moore turn you into a child wandering through the looking glass, while gazing up at Louise Bourgeois’ gigantic maternal spiders can leave you feeling meek or apologetic for the rest of the day. If those were tabletop pieces, your emotional reaction to them would be smaller, if not absent.

Morag Charltons portrait of her daughter Annas Facebook profile picture: I absolutely love myself
  • Courtesy Eno Gallery
  • Morag Charlton's portrait of her daughter Anna's Facebook profile picture: "I absolutely love myself"
Morag Charlton uses scale to reveal the complex identities of the subjects of her new portraits rather than to elicit an emotional reaction from a viewer in a show at the Eno Gallery in downtown Hillsborough through Sept. 25. The eight paintings in “Regardless of what you think…” are based off of self-photographs from social networking sites—the Facebook thumbnail profile made large.

Each painting is more than a yard square, which isn’t in itself large. But the faces are five or six times life size and, hair-to-chin, fill the rectangle of the canvas. Charlton brings out the drama of the monumental in this enlarging and framing, amplifying the tension between the intimacy of the image and its globally public presentation online.

But make no mistake; these works aren’t about the Internet. They’re about people—Charlton’s daughters and their friends—trying to capture an image that represents them to the world. Existence is inherently dramatic, online and in reality.

Charlton poses with one of her new works at her Eno Gallery opening in Hillsborough
“I’m interested in exaggerating their personalities,” Charlton mused at the show’s opening, “and size allows me to go into details like the feel of their skin or the look of their eyes.” Her attention to these details retains the spontaneity frozen in the original photographic moment.

Charlton meticulously works her linen surface. You can see the texture of the fabric in these brows and cheeks if you look for it, but you can’t find evidence of a brushstroke. Charlton has glazed upwards of twenty thin layers of different pigments to catch the inner glow of youth as well as the laptop screen’s bluish pallor that undermines it.

The eyes are differently alive, reflecting points and rectangles of environmental lighting. Their whites jump as much as their irises and pupils. You want to engage their gaze, but then sometimes it’s as intense as engaging a stranger in public and you have to look away.

Even given Charlton’s attention to details, her surface is never labored. A deceptive effortlessness evenly covers the entire painting, from the central focal points of the eyes out to the subject’s hair, or to background nothingness, out in the corners.

The blue of the wisp of hair disappearing behind her daughter Anna’s shoulder in “I absolutely love myself” is as worked as the blue of her eye that drills into you. “It’s like building a character. I’m creating a narrative for these people,” Charlton says. Everything in the image signifies if you look at it long enough.

And you get to look at online images long enough, even more so than with a painting in a museum or gallery. Alone with the screen and the mouse, you can unselfconsciously click through friends’ and strangers’ photo albums online, pausing as long as you need to, finely honing your ability to recognize the iconographic.

Bronwyn Charlton, in reality and in the painting You were the first
Charlton incorporated something of this into her painting process. She took pictures of the paintings at various stages with her iPhone. Then she’d look at those shots for a while before resuming the painting. Iterations through painting on canvas and looking onscreen give the paintings psychological layers comparable to Charlton’s glazing.

The titles provide another layer. Tossed-off phrases and quips like “I am my own best ally” and “I want to be free” serve more as captions. Some are culled from Facebook posts, others Charlton merely thought of after having lived with the image for a period of time. But Charlton hopes that their minor, speech-based tone “will lead you to think of the painting in a different way.” This tone was set by Anna’s reaction to her own in-progress image in Charlton’s studio one day: “I absolutely love myself in that painting.” The spark between the image and the phrase caught Charlton’s mind, and it was done.

Charlton’s eldest daughter Bronwyn was her first subject in this series. The painting “You were the first,” hazier and more interpretive than the others, shows Charlton still making stylistic decisions. “I took this first thing in the morning, right when I’d gotten up,” Bronwyn noted at the opening, facing herself with some sense of cognitive dissonance. “Do you ever have that experience when you look in the mirror and you aren’t sure it’s you?”

These paintings of being and becoming, both rattling and pleasing, might well awaken you to new possibilities for looking in the mirror, and for seeing who exactly is shown there.

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