The Gaze

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Tall Girl
Dog Face
Janet Werner, Werner, acrylic, painting, 2D art, two-dimensional art, portrait, imagined portrait, objective beauty, portrait subject, beauty, ugliness, subject, frontal pose, societal expectations , painting, women, portrait
description

But then puberty came and destroyed my confidence, destroyed my everything... ‘cause it is such a helluva gear change, ‘cause think about it: before puberty, girls and boys are going “girls, eww” or “boys, eww.” Then it gets to puberty and... you just start switching on, and thinking ‘I’d better look my best!’ ...And then Mother Nature says, ‘NO! You will look the worst you’ve ever looked in your LIFE!’   --Eddie Izzard, Dress to Kill

Janet Werner seems trapped in adolescence... or at least, her paintings do.

Werner’s work addresses appearance and human awkwardness of a type that typifies the high school experience. Her portraits, which are mostly of imagined women, are quite ugly. In addition to being awkward images, they are awkward paintings, with uneven distribution of paint, thick  impastoA thick or lumpy application of paint, or deep brush marks (brushstrokes), as distinguished from a flat, smooth paint surface. May also refer to a thick application of pastel. (Artlex.com)  bits here and there on the canvas, clumsy blending of tones and a deliberately sickly  colourProduced by light of various wavelengths, and when light strikes an object and reflects back to the eyes. Colour is an element of art with three properties: (1) hue or tint, the colour name, e.g., red, yellow, blue, etc.: (2) intensity, the purity and strength of a colour, e.g., bright red or dull red; and (3) value, the lightness or darkness of a colour. When the spectrum is organized as a color wheel, the colours are divided into groups called primary, secondary and intermediate (or tertiary) colours; analogous and complementary, and also as warm and cool colours. Colours can be objectively described as saturated, clear, cool, warm, deep, subdued, grayed, tawny, mat, glossy, monochrome, multicolored, particolored, variegated, or polychromed. Some words used to describe colours are more subjective (subject to personal opinion or taste), such as: exciting, sweet, saccharine, brash, garish, ugly, beautiful, cute, fashionable, pretty, and sublime. Sometimes people speak of colours when they are actually refering to pigments, what they are made of (various natural or synthetic substances), their relative permanence, etc. (Artlex.com)  palette.

By purposefully creating ugliness in  portraitA work of art that represents a specific person, a group of people, or an animal. Portraits usually show what a person looks like as well as revealing something about the subject's personality. Portraits can be made of any sculptural material or in any two-dimensional medium. Portraiture is the field of portrait making and portraits in general. Portrait is a term that may also refer simply to a vertically-oriented rectangle, just as a horizontally-oriented one may be said to be oriented the landscape way. (Artlex.com)  form, Werner explores the idea of  objectiveBeing influenced by facts instead of by emotions or personal prejudices. The opposite of objectification and subjectivity.  (Artlex.com)  beauty, if such a thing even exists. A post-1970s feminist, Werner is interested in questioning the expectation of feminine beauty in culture, and in disrupting our desire for prettiness. Her titles which often have judgmental overtones, indicate this intention, as in the examples of her work from the Mendel Art Gallery’s  collectionTo collect is to accumulate objects. A collection is an accumulation of objects. A collector is a person who makes a collection. (Artlex.com)  Tall Girl and Dog Face; each of these suggests non-acceptance of the portrait’s subject. Werner does not treat her subjects with any degree of neutrality, but instead seems to cast on them the same contempt that she feels societal expectations of beauty cast on actual women. “If you can’t rely on art to be beautiful,” her work asks, “why would you expect people to be beautiful?”

Werner’s work has shifted over time in her use of the gaze. Specifically, in earlier works from the millennial shift, such as those exhibited in the Dunlop Art Gallery’s Beautiful Losers exhibition, she showed her subjects straightforwardly and rigidly; as Isa Tousignant has pointed out, they were reminiscent of passport photos, with the portrait subject directly addressing the viewer.  (Tousignant, 2005)

In her more recent work, such as Tall Girl, Werner has chosen to divert the subject’s gaze slightly, heightening the awkwardness; the portrait is too shy or too self-conscious to look at us. And in Dog Face, the subject is robbed even of bodily  contextThe varied circumstances in which a work of art is (or was) produced and interpreted. There are three arenas to these circumstances, each of them highly complex. The first pertains to the artist: attitudes, beliefs, interests, values, intentions and purposes, education and training, and biography (including psychology). The second is the setting in which the work was produced: the apparent function of the work (to adorn, beautify, express, illustrate, mediate, persuade, record, redefine reality, or redefine art), religious and philosophical convictions, sociopolitical and economic structures, and even climate and geography. Third is the field of the work's reception and interpretation: the traditions it is intended to serve, the mind-set it adheres to (ritualistic, perceptual, rational, and emotive), and, perhaps most importantly, the colour of the lenses through which the work is being scrutinized — i.e., the interpretive mode (artistic biography, psychological approaches, political criticism, feminism, cultural history, intellectual history, formalism, structuralism, semiotics, hermeneutics, post-structuralism and deconstruction, reception theory, concepts of periodicity [stylistic pendulum swinging], and other chronological and contextual considerations. Context is much more than the matter of the artist's circumstances alone. (Artlex.com)  as a floating head in the non-space of the canvas, with what appear to be scars or teary lines of mascara.
 
When dealing with the binaries of ugliness/beauty and awkwardness/acceptance, what better cultural mode to operate in than that of the adolescent? Werner’s frequent use of young women as  subjectA topic or idea represented in an art work.  matter is a specific and astute choice. And by using fictional women, she creates a  subjectA topic or idea represented in an art work.  that viewers can identify with in an ambivalent way, as we feel pity for the awkward faces on the canvasses and at the same time are reminded of our own social clumsiness.

additional resources Things to Think About
  • Look at Werner’s use of gaze in Tall Girl and Dog Face and the way her subjects’ eyes are cast. What does it tell you about the subjects and their relationship to you, their viewer?
Online Activity
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Do these portraits use formal or informal composition? Click the right answer.

Studio Activity

When Janet Werner began  paintingWorks of art made with paint on a surface. Often the surface, also called a support, is either a tightly stretched piece of canvas or a panel. How the ground (on which paint is applied) is prepared on the support depends greatly on the type of paint to be used. Paintings are usually intended to be placed in frames, and exhibited on walls, but there have been plenty of exceptions. Also, the act of painting, which may involve a wide range of techniques and materials, along with the artist's other concerns which effect the content of a work. (Artlex.com)  portraits she created her subjects from her imagination. Her more recent  portraitA work of art that represents a specific person, a group of people, or an animal. Portraits usually show what a person looks like as well as revealing something about the subject's personality. Portraits can be made of any sculptural material or in any two-dimensional medium. Portraiture is the field of portrait making and portraits in general. Portrait is a term that may also refer simply to a vertically-oriented rectangle, just as a horizontally-oriented one may be said to be oriented the landscape way. (Artlex.com)  work, however, incorporates references from a wide-range of sources including fashion photography.

  • Paint a portrait using various source materials to create a composite portrait.
  • Print a selection of photos to work with.
  • From these photos cut out various features: eyes, nose, mouth, ears as well as jaw lines and hair.
  • Play with various arrangements of the cut-out features and mix them up. You may consider age, race and gender or purposely ignore these factors in creating your composite portrait.
  • Glue the composite portrait together on paper. This will act as your reference for the painting.
  • Fill in the background with paint and the under-painting on the portrait then build up the details of the features. For tips on portrait painting see the links below.
  • Your painted portrait allows you to recreate your composite portrait in a seamless fashion and to create an imaginary portrait on a much larger scale.
  • Give the painting a title and hang it for display.

Tips for portrait painting links

References

Author unknown.  ‘Janet Werner.’  Artists, Parisian Laundry.  Retrieved from the Internet on June 10, 2008 from:  http://www.parisianlaundry.com/artists/werner020.

Balzer, David.  ‘Janet Werner.’  Canadian Art, March 15, 2007.  Retrieved from the Internet on June 10, 2008 from:  http://www.canadianart.ca/art/reviews/2007/03/15/janet_werner/.

Dion, François.  Small  CraftThe production of work involving the use of skilled hands.  Warnings.  Exhibition announcement.  Gallery 101, Ottawa, Ontario.  Retrieved from the Internet on June 10, 2008 from:  http://www.gallery101.org/content.php?lan=en&col=1⊂=petros⊂=smallcraft&act=exhibitions&lev=1.

Redfern, Christine.  ‘Ladies in Landscapes.’  Montreal Mirror, Vol. 23, No. 38.  Retrieved from the Internet on June 10, 2008 from:  http://www.montrealmirror.com/2008/031308/artsweek.html.

Tousignant, Isa.  'Janet Werner gets real.’  Hour.ca, July 28, 2005.  Retrieved from the Internet on June 10, 2008 from:  http://www.hour.ca/visualarts/visualarts.aspx?iIDArticle=6735.

Canadian Heritage University of Regina Mackenzie Art Gallery Mendel Art Gallery Sask Learning