Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Artspeak 22 April 2010 Under Scrutiny, by Melissa Anderson Scott

Main Guest speaker: artist Melissa Anderson Scott
Additional guest speakers were three friends and portrait sitters: artist John Lyall, ceramic artist Peter Lange, and print and bookmaking artist, Beth Serjeant.

In this informal and frank discussion, painter and tutor Melissa Anderson Scott discusses the motivations and concepts behind her portrait show: Under Scrutiny. This exhibition presents a two way conversation between the sitter/subject and the artist/observer. Nine portrait subjects from the art world are depicted in various ways and mediums alongside their own visual and or textual response to Melissa, their observer and friend.

Melissa, when asked about finding the idea for the show, explains that these friendships are also rich creative partnerships. Much of her art, she says, is “…a result of contact with my very creative friends… I wanted to celebrate that dialogue”. Fittingly, direct inspiration came from a longstanding friend and writer who had herself been exploring in words what it is like to sit for an artist. Nine friends were then invited to an “exchange” or as Beth Serjeant suggests, a “collaboration”.

Melissa feels that with a lot of portraiture, a viewer is left with little additional contextual information as to “Why did the artist choose that person?”
Why did they depict (them) in this way?” Under Scrutiny is an attempt to highlight the relationships and thought processes of and between both subject and artist.

Unfortunately, Melissa broke her painting arm which reduced the time she could spend on some portraits. She was “forced out of her comfort zone” in terms of how she approached certain works and in the mediums used – she adopted more light weight materials and mediums such as watercolour and graphite and wash on paper.

To sit for a portrait can very often be a confronting or self-conscious experience.

John Lyall commented: “I’m an artist so in theory (this) should be familiar…. But I have never been looked at - I’ve always done the looking… I’ve never sat for a portrait before”. A series of strokes have limited his mobility and changed his appearance. He spoke candidly about feeling discomfort while sitting for his portrait. “(I’m) not very happy with the way I look… I would like to be more beautiful and younger”. He has used a poem to convey his thought processes during the sit regarding his looks, changed body, and the peculiar experience of being scrutinised. This is described as “very honest”, by Melissa. (In fact, his large-scale portrait consists of his head only with its slightly wondering, nervous, quizzical eyes.) He concludes, “It was good for me to confront myself through someone else’s eyes”.

Ceramic artist, Peter Lange, also refers to “…a certain amount of vanity in this (exercise)” It is “…very hard to get that (objective) picture of yourself”. You “…want to look good”. Beth Serjeant also mentions the narcissism which seems to be shared by many sitters. “Reality…stings”.

Beth, a practitioner in book arts, was struck by curiosity when Melissa described the exhibition concept. She understood the motivation: “When I work with writer’s works I respond to the writer as much as the writing”. Her thoughts led her to all the past conversations Melissa and Beth had shared and which she describes as “nourishing”. She remembers the many meals they have discussed ideas over. Suddenly, while twisting paper, her idea for a response presented itself: “Oh yes, nourishment, food…”. The result is shredded pages of text in noodle formation in a black steamer and bowl with chop – sticks. (The phrase ‘Food for thought’ comes to mind.) The concept is also, she says, in keeping with the eco –emphasis of Waitakere city.

Peter, hoped to meditate on the actual experience of the sit. For him, as it turns out, sitting “…is not some great mystical thing”. It is quite “prosaic” – “Missy talks quite a lot…”

But the experience was fruitful nonetheless. Melissa’s studio is sited against Mt Eden, a place with many memories for Peter. He recalls the actions of Artists Against Apartheid, a group which included Stanley Palmer. Despite the presence of police, Stanley lit a fire in Maungawhau’s crater in protest. The volcano is also bustling with activity, including hawkers, buses and a continuous stream of visitors. Peter thus came up with the concept of his deliberately gimmicky Mountain series – of ceramic moulds of Maungawhau with gleaming light at their centres. “I’m a sucker for that adolescent stuff”, he says.

Actress Elizabeth McRae (not present at the talk) reportedly found the experience disorienting. Accustomed to performing rather than ‘playing’ herself, a series of poses were adopted. These however, were rejected for the resulting and rather introspective portrait. Elizabeth peers solemnly at her hand which performs shadow puppetry on the wall; a metaphor for her own skill at illusion.

Historical elements and the portraiture tradition are a preoccupation for Melissa. Many of the portraits in Under Scrutiny feature abstracted heraldic emblems which hang by strings as in Beth Sergeant’s portrait or as if wallpaper as seen in the portrait of her daughter Lucy. Lucy’s white turban also references Old Master portraits. Birds feature as part of her personal iconography and hold a variety of meanings for her. They operate to provide a contrast to the stillness of the sitter; “…the settled and …the unsettled”. They are also “messengers from the dead…or from other realities”. Alternatively, they may allude to the lively activity of both the artist and sitter – “ideas and thoughts”.

Such ideas and thoughts are given a visual dimension in the cryptic portrait of Deborah Smith which shows her with eyes shut. A series of motifs – an elephant, key, and heraldic emblem – float above her head. The artist states, “I wanted to capture her very rich interior life”.

While this is a show of depicted individuals by a close friend, the artist has also, in the words of John Lyall, brought together a contemporary “slice of artistic Auckland”.
She has also garnered support for a genre which despite centuries of being a mainstay of fine art, has often been received with reservation in the 20th and 21st centuries.

Under Scrutiny is on show until 23rd May.

- By Kyla

John Lyall, Melissa Anderson Scott, Beth Serjeant and Peter Lange at Artspeak

'Reach – Beth Serjeant' by Melissa Anderson Scott

'The Brick Curtain – Pete Lange' & 'Portrait of an Actor – Elizabeth McRae' by Melissa Anderson Scott with Beth Serjeant's 'Unititled' in foreground

'Maungawhau Souvenirs' detail Peter Lange

Artspeak with 'Monumental Man – Portrait of John Lyall' by Melissa Anderson Scott (background)

No comments:

Post a Comment