Self-Portraits and Polka Dots: New Paintings by Alexandra Paperno
By Marek Bartelik
(National Centre for Contemporary Arts, Moscow)
A photo-based painting, Self-portrait #4, captures the viewer’s attention. A seven-year-old girl dressed in a school uniform looks back at us with a sense of outer interest and inner withdrawal. She is clearly posing for a picture, trying to remain–with her young determination–both poised and enigmatic. One can imagine a friend of her parents’ saying of her, back in the early 1980s, "this little girl may be destined for a bright future."
What might interest us the most in this photo-based painting, as well as in other works from the series, is its third meaning, which Roland Barthes has called the obtuse one–the meaning that has "something to do with disguise." "If it could be described (a contradiction in terms)," Barthes continues, "it would have exactly the nature of the Japanese haiku–anaphoric gesture without significant content, a sort of gash razed of meaning (of desire for meaning)." Thus one might "translate" Paperno’s image:
Mouth firmly closed, eyes wide-open
Hair hanging in a ponytail
Alexandra Paperno’s "family album pictures" were first influenced by Josef Brodsky’s poem about memory, "Part of speech." She has transformed the verses into images about remembering and forgetting, fixing and erasing. As a result, both the poem and the pictures are blurred. "The obtuse meaning is the epitome of a counter-narrative . . . an extraordinary segmentation: counter-logical and yet ‘true’." If indeed, as Barthes suggests, "the contemporary problem is not to destroy the narrative but to subvert it," Paperno’s painting achieves this very well.
An artist once created a series of paintings that he called "after-images," obtained by staring into the sun. Intense, blinding light projects an image onto the retina, thus physically transferring the reality of the outside world to the surface of the inner eye, while bypassing the involvement of the artist’s mind or heart. The resulting works are neither intellectual, nor sentimental. What better optical subject matter could an artist find for his or her art?
Look long enough at the sun, then close your eyes, and you will experience something similar. After a while the image dissipates into small dots.
In Paperno’s series titled "Dots", small, round shapes spill onto the canvas like confetti, falling side-by-side without touching each other or the abstract, gestural forms that constitute the background. In the series "Star Maps", other dots seem to travel away from reality, forming boundless constellations, both celestial and painterly. They float devoid of mundane significance, reminding us of other artists who explored similar imagery, from Mykolas Ciurlionis, to Sigmar Polke (humorously), to Vija Celmins. Suggestive of conventional subject matter, Paperno’s images often look as if they were covered with a mist. As such, they exude poetry. Using the word "poetry" in relation to painting has become increasingly difficult in our day, yet the connection is still relevant. Ut pictura poesis–as is poetry, so is painting–the maxim allies the emotional and the counter-narrative. "I believe," Barthes states, " that the obtuse meaning carries a certain emotion. Caught up in the disguise, such emotion is never sticky, it is an emotion which simply designates what one loves, what one wants to defend: an emotional-value, an evaluation."