Alison Van Pelt: Portraits
by Christopher Monger
Published by Pharmaka, Los Angeles, CA
Alison Van Pelt’s latest series of paintings are pulled from the American landscape of popular culture. She addresses her subject as an iconographic symbol that hovers like a black and white dream. These newsprint style images are instantly recognizable portraits of people that are now considered public domain, like the portraits of Tom Cruise and Britney Spears.
Alison meticulously renders the portrait using a brush with oil (not airbrushed) and from a distance the face looks like it was cut out from a newspaper and blown up. When you get close you see there are no pixels and the brush strokes are so refined that we are instantly seduced into believing we are looking at a large photograph that has somehow gone through a filtering process, thus making the image seem soft and slightly blurred.
Alison’s portraits are not directly linked to the mechanics of photography like Chuck Close’s oversized photorealist portraits of the 1970s. Those paintings engaged in a direct dialogue with photography by replicating how the camera lens was mechanically able to focus on one area of a subject, while the rest became blurred. Instead, Alison’s images are preexisting and lifted from out media-driven world and placed in a contrasting environment – the same way a Ruscha word is lifted out of a conversation and thrown into a foreign context.
The area that surrounds Alison’s portraits are painted in acrylic, creating a flat and stark, almost hostile contrast to the illusionary face. This collision of two surfaces pushes the image forward into the viewer’s space. There is a visual confrontation: We either reject or project our personal identity onto the image of the celebrity. The celebrity persona has been so well crafted – mythologized into the Pantheon of Gods.
Alison paints celebrity portraits as they appear to us through the machinery of the media, having been removed countless times from the interaction that occurs between the artist and the sitter. They stare out at us in their all too familiar way, but the color field that surrounds them is what is real. A flat, bright color that refers to nothing else but itself in the tradition of the color field painters of the 1960s and 1970s. The Ellsworth Kelly fields of brushless strokes are ruptured by the fading image of the person. Without the talking heads of the entertainment or news shows to give background noise to these images, these portraits radiate a deafening silence – almost a death knell.