Portraits in the Flesh
Kristi Ropeleski is a painter based in Montreal, who first gained recognition with her exhibition, "Blood Harmony," in 2003. The focal point of the show was an installation comprised of 16 standardized portraits, each featuring an anonymous individual, posed naked against a blank wall. While all of the sitters actively met the gaze of the viewer, each one offered up a different moment of confrontation. Their spectrum of emotions was broad, ranging from flirtation and self-assurance to vulnerability and nonchalance. This installation engaged with the tradition of comparative physiognomic portraits and forced the viewer into the uneasy role of scrutinizing observer.
Since the success of this exhibition, Ropeleski has been remarkably prolific despite the impressively large scale of her work. Her intense paintings experiment with the boundaries of portraiture to transform the surface of the body into an emotive site where real and imagined identities emerge. In every work, both subject and method of mark-making are indulgently tactile, as if the surface of the canvas were in itself a second skin enfolding the sitter. These subjects are awkwardly visceral and suffused with an exhilarating yet unrefined energy. Ropeleski’s practice relentlessly questions the meaning of identity to reveal the self as fragmentary, multiple and unstable.
Whether stripped down bare or elaborately dressed-up, each portrait begins with a sitter who is captured enacting a version of the self. These models shift between projecting self-conscious stereotypes, adopting fictional personas and sometimes they even show basic desires latent in their disposition. Ropeleski’s work exposes the performance that underlies everyday behavior by exaggerating the subtle idiosyncrasies that individualize the body. Textured brushstrokes seize the nervousness that slips through a slouch or the defiance implied by a curled lip and they are made visible through the flesh. In many of her works, she also acts as a model, adding an extra layer of complexity to her exploration of the human subject.
Ropeleski’s encounter with models is always mediated through photography because the camera enables her to generate a varied and endless line-up of the same subject. This medium, a mechanism inextricably linked to promises of accuracy and resemblance, can only provide a partial and flattened out representation of the subject, a frozen moment already lost to the past. By using a photograph as the starting point for a painted portrait, the artist draws upon the history of both mediums and extends the divide between the lived body and externalized self. In her self-portraits, photography becomes a distancing device enabling her to objectify and disengage from her own façade.
In the series "Look at Me When I’m Talking to You" (2004), Ropeleski continues to challenge the tradition of figurative painting by depicting increasingly complex, atmospheric narratives told across a series of canvasses. At the outset, the key works from this series might appear disparate but when they are hung together, typically from left to right, Jessakill, Seabiscuit and Drama in Brown become self-contained worlds, that are juxtaposed to set-up a tense moment of collision.
Initially, these sizeable canvasses look eccentric alongside each other, especially given that the enormous fish in the middle seems out of place alongside the two female figures. However, a harmony is established through a unifying colour palette and the way that each body skillfully refers back to the other, implying that they somehow exist in a parallel universe. The woman in Drama in Brown, is rigid with apprehension, enraptured in her own personal distress and no clues are given to explain her dull, monochromatic surroundings. Her agitation is counterbalanced by the female on the left, Jessakill, who holds a Madonna-like pose which exudes naïve tranquility. Both figures reference classical Renaissance poses yet the overall gravitas is undercut by the grotesque fish, Seabiscuit, who lurks between them, gnashing his teeth.
Ironically, only the fish meets the viewer’s gaze while the others remain consumed by their immediate selfish needs. One wonders if these worlds are interconnected, if the fish is the catalyst of a drama that threatens an unknowing victim or if he will instigate the foreboding drama in Drama in Brown. A touch of humour is also added by the physicality of a larger-than-life fish painting, which may just be a tribute of someone’s adored pet. In this imagined narrative, the grandiose visual language of history painting is reworked in a tongue-in-cheek manner, turning the everyday into the epic.
The latest painting in Ropeleski’s repertoire, Susanne Arlynn Sulcs in a Past Life (2005), is the first in a series of dinosaur-women, portraits of women overcome by suppressed animal urges. In this work, the female body is awkwardly contorted into a passive animal-like position and outstretched against a kitschy tiled floor. The inspiration for the pose was grounded in Ropeleski’s fascination of dinosaurs, as well as her interest in evolutionary cycles. Like a primitive creature painstakingly displayed in a history museum, this model’s body is theatrically twisted into a hyper-arch. While the posture was modeled after a bird-like dinosaur, the unsettling position of the neck also invokes more deathly associations, the constriction of muscles post-mortem. The viewer is forced to gaze over this helpless body from above, as if she were a curiosity under a microscope or maybe even the remnants of a murder scene.
Susanne seems ready to burst from all of the accoutrements of femininity, her precariously high heels and denim skirt no longer adequately accommodate this muscular body that has regressed back to a primal state. A strong irreconcilable tension is established between the cultural constraints that regulate her body and the unprocessed emotions that shape her behavior. The acute angle of the heels is mimicked in the dramatic arches of legs, neck and back, which accentuate the disjunction between the trappings of civilization and the blatantly bestial posture. This painting stages a mesmerizing metamorphosis, where the artifice of femininity is reduced to gut impulses. Kristi Ropeleski’s dinosaur-woman series holds great promise and indicates that there will be more to come from this innovative artist.