Model artists

Gina Maria Caruso

October 08, 1992|By Gina Maria Caruso

HOW DO models who are also artists see themselves?

In "What We Do With Our Clothes On," a student show currently on exhibit at the Maryland Institute, College of Art, 12 young artists who also happen to be models attempt to answer that question.

The theme of the show -- how models see themselves and the personas they assume while modeling for other artists -- was conceived after a group of 10 female and two male models learned they had something significant in common -- they are artists themselves.

Well, not quite. Though the show includes two male artists, their work is largely overshadowed by the feminist perspective of the women, whose portraits, nudes and visual allegories are displayed together.

Coherence, however, is not one of the strengths in this show. There is much skill, experience and a broad visual language apparent in some of the work. Other pieces seem to lack it entirely.

A few of the paintings and sketches are purely academic, like dutifully executed student assignments. But some pieces, particularly the portraits, are eerily thought-provoking, impelling the viewer to notice patterns in the spatial arrangement of the works.

Kate Stevens, for example, a young woman whose series of portraits reveals a definite authority and grace, puts great credence in the power of patterns.

"Make-up, hairstyle, and jewelry have such power," Ms. Stevens said. "Women have always decorated themselves. Although decoration can be used as a form of oppression, it is also a way for women to reconnect with our matrilineal traditions."

Through her painting, Ms. Stevens has attempted to assimilate this tradition by finding ways to make it her own. One of her paintings consists of a series of portraits arranged in the pattern of a quilt -- a patchwork of the faces women have inherited that constitutes a visual collection of hairstyles, expressions and designs that examine women as art and as art objects.

"As women, we have learned to internalize the male gaze," says Ms. Stevens. "In other words, we see ourselves as men see us. We have accepted that criterion but we need to question it and the hierarchy of beauty that we've helped to create."

Ms. Stevens wanted her quilt portraits to be odd, quirky, even funny (such as her illustrations of Snow White and Cinderella) in order to mock the artificial standards of beauty by which women are judged. But she notes that there is also some self-mockery in this series.

"These faces are all myself," she admits. "I would not have been a model if I hadn't been an artist. The model actually participates a great deal -- even in an anatomy class. There is just as much expression in a pose as there is in a face. It's hard for me to do a drawing without that in mind."

Annalisa Gojmerak is another artist who demonstrates a mastery of draftsmanship, craft and vision in her prints and paintings. Some of her prints read like diary entries; they express the angst of love relationships. Others portray women in threatening or menacing environments, such as her painting "I Know My Fear."

For all the questions this show raises, the idea of women portraying themselves in art isn't particularly new -- the artist Frida Kahlo pioneered the form in the 1930s and '40s. But the show's exploration of women's compulsion to order chaos into patterns and designs (a compulsion women historically expressed through handicrafts) does contain some delightful surprises.

Yet intriguing questions remain unanswered. If, for example, women have been the central subject of art since Classical Rome, why shouldn't women artists reinterpret the tradition by investigating their view of the men who objectify them -- as models and as art?

Likewise, if women are accustomed to being vulnerable as models (most art schools, for example, have far fewer male models than females), why not re-examine the accepted attitude toward the male body -- which until recently, as Ms. Stevens perceptively notes, "has been protected."

"Male models always wore loincloths because the idea was that the male genitalia are sacred," Ms. Stevens explains.

Perhaps that is why the two male artist-models in the show, who disclosed very little about how they perceive themselves in art, tellingly portrayed only women -- and nude women at that -- in their work.

Gina Maria Caruso is a former English teacher and poet who lives in Baltimore.

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