Living Dolls

We are all voyeurs in beauty’s collective dream.

They might be portraits of the newest stakeholders in the fame game: downtown lounge lizards, uptown debutantes and about-to-be-discovered supermodels. Some look snap-frozen, as twinkly as popsicles: twenty-somethings possessing potent, engaging eyes and projecting intriguing auras, mystifying personas. Others look barely post-adolescent and seem still dewy, as if freshly emerged from cocoons, self-consciously stretching glittery wings.

Glamour, like a transparent shield or bubble, encases them; each is a wise child, ready for the close-up, the adoration of a camera lens. You imagine them – girls and boys, the young and the restless, these gilded youths – as speaking with sugary automated voices slightly out of synch with the movement of their luscious bee-stung lips, their android-smooth skins.

These living dolls are, in fact, paintings concocted by Auckland artist Peter Stichbury, whose aim is to reveal beauty as a collective dream in which we are all secret voyeuristic sharers.

The portraits – 30 individual studies, most in acrylics on stretched linen but some painted onto small wooden spheres – have been gathered together by curator Emma Bugden for Stichbury’s travelling exhibition The Alumni.

Yet if Stichbury is a portraitist, a society- painter, his subjects, despite their solid delineation, can be elusive; they are changelings and composites. With their semi-allegorical names, near-flawless complexions and hyper-real sheen, they are emblems as much as real people. Generic specimens and types, they represent our over-mediated world with its focus groups and database assumptions, where every singularity is framed, screened and catalogued. Stichbury offers a crowd of lookalikes and stand-ins, all with mesmerising appearances.

There are some instantly recognisable people, such as local pop musician Dudley Benson and movie star Anna Paquin. But Stichbury is not after instant recognition; rather the wound-up, intense faces he offers provoke a double take. The euphoniously named Anna Paquin (2004), for example, an actor at once grounded and aware of the power of stardom, gazes at us with gigantic insectoid eyes, her eyelashes jutting like predatory spider legs. Though her long, dark-brown hair is tucked behind her ears, the rococo S-curve of one strand hangs free, echoing the great curved dome shape of her forehead. Pushing and pulling at the contours of Paquin’s face, Stichbury has given her cartoonish features and transformed her into a kind of alien, who holds us, as if paralysed, with the power of her gaze.

There’s more than a bright, intent look on Paquin’s face; there’s a burning radiance, as if the artist’s careful applications of layer after layer of colours blended together to give weight and depth and presence are actually an ironic meditation on the artificial, the fake, the unreal.

Exaggerating feminine allure, another portrait, Glister (2004), gives a girl’s lit-up febrile face the fragile brittleness of blown glass; while Juvenile (2000) inserts eyeballs that bulge like heavy lustrous globes in a classic, oval-shaped face. Examine Juvenile’s pupils, and you see that they are extremely dilated, as if she’s in the grip of some chemical enhancement, some practical lesson in biochemistry perhaps.

Stichbury first came to wide public notice when he received the James Wallace Paramount Art Award in 1997, while still a student at Elam School of Fine Arts. His award-winning painting, Truce (1997), part of a series about Germany’s Weimar Republic and inspired by Weimar social satirists such as Max Beckmann and Otto Dix, explored male friendships and relationships in a distinctive way, and his interest in male psychology, in male role-playing, remains central in The Alumni.

It is not stereotypical macho behaviour under his magnifying glass, however, but rather the complex ambivalence of free-floating emotions, as in his portrait of Eddie Vaughan (2004), sourced, we are told, from the internet as a police mugshot, which the artist has then manipulated. Vaughan, looking both baffled and angry, glares out at us. His face, with again the exaggerated, big domed forehead, is not only a blotchy pink, but also covered with a pattern of fine scratches, as if he’s been dragged facedown through bushes or across gravel. Alongside this painting is a portrait of one Joe Gruver (2007), nursing a black eye the same shade of mauve as his shirt.

Expressions blend and morph in The Alumni, as if feelings are not just being registered by individuals, but also flickering and being transmitted from portrait to portrait. There’s a spectrum covered, too, from shock and awe to yearning and gloating. Ultimately, each face, displayed like a boutique item, is bittersweet, as if the possibility of deflation is lurking behind the inflated self-esteem.

Stichbury is on about the modern comedy of manners, where private diaries are on blogs and Facebook, and where social anxiety consists of not being connected, always available. This is an age attention is measured in blink rates, the digital has destabilised a sense of permanence and idealism has been appropriated by fashion.

If commodification is the gold standard, fracturing and fragmentation of identity might loom for us all. Teasing and coaxing out elements of personality, Stichbury offers the portrait as a performance, but in studying the theatrical mask of the face, he also makes it transparent, and poignant.

Peter Stichbury: The Alumni, Dunedin Public Art Gallery

by David Eggleton
(courtesy The Listener)

Peter Stichbury