I’m not an art critic. I know what I like and I know what I don’t like, but more importantly I know why. I have studied a lot of art theory over the years and dabble in trying to be an artist myself. I kind of get it. However, it’s not very often that I see a painting that draws (no pun intended) me in. I therefore wanted to write about it.
Currently there is an exhibition on in Darling Park (Sussex St, Sydney CBD) of a different kind. I say different because I have worked in and around the building for around 4 years now. I walk past scattered paintings and sculptures multiple times a day. Often there are exhibitions which amount more to littered pieces of junk with little white tags next them. Today however was different.
I went downstairs to get a coffee and I noticed that they had just set up a new exhibition. It was only of 9 pieces and all in a row. Convenient. I thought I would give the paintings the benefit of the doubt even though if past form is something to go by, this wouldn’t be worth the four step detour.
I casually glanced at a couple of the paintings and generally liked what I saw until I came to one particular painting. I stopped and stared at the painting for around 20 minutes. It really spoke to me and I stood there and just listened. And I liked the story it was telling me, revealing more about itself to me as I watched. After a while my sense of time returned and I released that I really needed to get back to my desk. I headed for the lift with the exhibition flyer in hand so I could look up the artist on the internet.
When I got back to my desk, I discovered two things. The artist, whose name is Alberto Santiago, is a young guy from Sydney that had ventured into physical paintings after receiving multiple accolades for his digital and design work.
The other thing I discovered was that I forgot to get my coffee.
I really wanted to put down on virtual paper my thoughts about this painting that had enthralled me. So, without actually concurring with the artist and based purely on my own hack ability as an art critic, I wanted to share what the painting said to me. Below is a photo of the painting “Portrait of Audrey and Rose” – please don’t steal it like I did against the artist’s copyright.
I want to talk about the painting itself first. It is an oil on canvas, small size for an exhibition painting – 14 by 18 – with a rather gaudy frame (let’s be honest) that sort of compliments the almost Kubrickesque, twins-in-the-hallway first impression. This painting is part of an exhibition called “Lolita Portraits” though I believe Humbert Humbert would not have agreed.
The stark contrast of the gold background (and it is gold if you see it in person, not as the picture above) to the monochrome palette and dress sense of the (what must be) sisters also strikes you immediately. The artwork it self is not classically impressive, though the traditional Victorian portrait style is anachronistically contrasted by a Japanese manga influence. In fact this whole painting, to me, is all about a sense of antithesis and dichotomous unity.
Looking closely at the picture, you see that the siblings only have one leg each. So, together they stand on two legs, as good sisters do, but individually would not appear to be normal children. Taking the sister assumption further you notice also that one is much more pretty than the other and also more dominant. But the question begs, is it a kind or malevolent dominance? The sister on the left has her hand in front of the other sister’s hand, but they ARE holding hands. This seems to imply that the pretty sister is leading the other one. But again, it’s not clear if this is due to pity or love.
Thinking about this Lolita theme, which I firmly believe is more to do with their Harajuku dress style than any inappropriate urges, I can see that the prettier girl is looking right at you, head tilted in an age old technique of attraction. Her sister gazes bored at something more interesting over your shoulder. Both are wearing the same clothes and have hair exactly the same, but the “other” sister has slightly different proportions to her face… her eyes too far apart, her hair crooked… while her sister has the perfect visage.
Looking even closer at their faces, the pretty sister seems to glow, has a faint hint of artificial highlight around her eyes and looking closely at her mouth you sense the small beginnings of a cheeky smile. The ugly sister seems to be forming disdain with her lips and has no colour to her face at all. However, you get the impression that they may actually be twins, but their personality is so strong in opposite directions that they appear so totally different.
The relationship between the two starts to become a chain of supposition in your head as you watch this drama play out before you. Pride for the good sister helping her maddeningly boring sibling to be confident through the ordeal of being children told to stand still for a portrait. Love for the pretty one who discards her own popularity to encourage the disliked misfit that holds her back.
However, the gold background contrasting with the bland and work-a-day dresses the girls are wearing implies that it is gold leaf – a gilt portrait being a metaphor for covering up something that is decidedly ugly. Could it be that the “good” sister is the being overshadowed by the pretty sister? What dark torture does the pretty one inflict behind closed doors? Is it bordem in the plain sister’s face, or is it the closing down of the portal to the soul to protect itself from being ever hurt again?
I could stand there for hours. I found it difficult to tear myself away from building hypothetical dramas with sweeping plot twists and being drawn into my own imagination at the prompt of a painting.
If the measure of a good piece of art is the evocation of a reaction from the viewer, what rating is given to a painting that conjures Edwardian soap operas?
I recommend that everyone should see this exhibition. There were other paintings there that I enjoyed thoroughly and although not to the same extent, each one seemed to prompt a story for me. I will be watching out with keen interest for future artworks from Mr. Santiago.