Thursday, August 19, 2010

Which came first?

Laura Elkins lives in an old clapboard house painted entirely in a rich olive color. Built around 1859, it rests on a tree-lined street on Capitol Hill. A magnolia tree crowds out the small front walk and could, frankly, use some trimming, as it makes navigating to the front door a bit of a challenge. At various times in the past several years, Laura has “wrapped” her house with painted tyvek, part of a public art project designed to call out what she perceives as abuses of power from local and national leaders. The magnolia tree itself once served as home to CALL ME, a sculpture that now looms over the Pyramid Atlantic building in Silver Spring, Maryland.

Once inside, you can imagine the main part of the house is much like it was when first built—the intent of Laura and her husband, who renovated the house several years ago.  As you pass through the parlor and dining room, you enter a much more modern kitchen. A kitchen window, where once a mother may have watched her children in the yard, now provides a peek into the studio beyond, a small, yet soaring, light-filled space where Laura works.

Laura Elkins paints self-portraits as first ladies, most recently Lady Bird Johnson, Hillary Clinton and Michelle Obama. Her portrait series began years ago after her arrival in DC. She toured the White House with a friend and saw the collection of official portraits of presidents and first ladies. She was struck by how facile the images of these women appeared. Here were powerful women with rich intellectual and emotional lives, and yet they appeared vacant, ageless, detached. Stuck in a moment of time, they revealed nothing of the complexities of their inner selves and the times in which they were a part.  

Laura is process-oriented in her work and if you were to stand in the alley and look into her studio, you might find her perched precariously on a ladder, brush in hand, as she paints herself nude for a perspective study for one of her “dressing table” paintings. Or sitting at her own dressing table, again nude, cigarette, gun or mirror in hand, as she adds paint to an existing portrait. She also paints herself en plein air and does extensive research and collecting of era-appropriate vintage textiles for consideration in her layered backgrounds.

The original series, part of which will be shown in the second Selects exhibit, includes head-and-shoulder portraits of her subjects. To imbue these controlled, public images with emotional complexity, Laura uses herself as model as well. These women now look ecstatic, deranged, paranoid, angry, arrogant—emotions they could never express without fear of undue press scrutiny. Their scale is human-size and approachable, and as such, we can feel on equal footing with them.

Laura’s dressing table paintings, on the other hand, are fairly large—66” square. Here, she poses her subjects in front of mirrors, staring at their own visages, nude, aging, unaware of the watchful eyes around them. She takes the same process approach to their creation as well. Though it is not her goal, there is a narrative quality to these pieces that adds richness to them. In one, Militia, both Hillary Clinton and Michelle Obama pose in the mirror nude, guns drawn, looking out at the viewer with hostile eyes. If you can get past their gaze, you’ll find a canvas carefully filled with objects and patterns meant to intensify the viewer’s experience.

When I began my visit with Laura, it was a sunny, and surprisingly pleasant, summer day. As our discussion came to an end, the skies had become dark and threatening, promising another of those wild summer storms we’ve seen this year.

As I made my way back to the parlor, I stopped again at the portraits I was considering for the exhibit. I was determined to make my choices before the skies opened up. It was then that I realized something else about them—and about ourselves. Laura’s first ladies, with their wild, contorted expressions, were just as impersonal and intractable as the portraits that inspired them. Have we arrived at a point where we, ourselves, are overly cautious and careful about showing outward expressions of emotion? If we reveal too much, are we then afraid others might see us unhinged? In Laura’s portraits, we seem to find an answer. These paintings are not portraits of Laura—or the first ladies—but portraits of each of us.