Painters know your secrets, and might tell you theirs

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Portrait of Maquoketa: The Dimensional View
  • "Portrait of Maquoketa: The Dimensional View"
Some years ago, a symbolist painter named Gail Potocki asked me to sit for her. I was flattered and promised myself that I would go to bed at a decent hour, wake up early, apply tasteful hints of blush and mascara, arrange my hair in artfully cascading waves, and arrive at her studio on time. Instead, I showed up more than an hour late on less than an hour of sleep, hair tangled, with Baby Jane makeup that I'd slapped on in the car. I was convinced that she wouldn't notice because, at the time, I thought I was hiding it so well. But when the painting was finished—my face obscured, my body twisted against a black and vaguely war-torn landscape—I knew I wasn't fooling anyone. The things that were defining my existence—the angst, isolation, and drugs—were right there on the canvas. Despite whatever lengths I'd gone to conceal it, the painter had seen the truth.

There's something about having your image rendered by another person that's jarring in a way that seeing yourself in a photograph could never be. Photography—and I know I'll have my detractors so let's limit this to portraiture—is a relatively objective medium. Yes, a photograph represents its maker's particular point of view and can certainly be manipulated into something we'd never otherwise be able to see. But a photograph still incorporates elements of objective reality; things that, insofar as you're inclined to believe in an ontological realm of objects, exist independently of our ability to perceive them. Painting, on the other hand, is entirely subjective. To have your portrait painted is to be seen as another sees you. And a good painter can give us something far more than a surface representation. A good painter can delve into her subject to mine for metaphysical truths, showing us things that a photograph cannot. For years, I couldn't bear to look at Gail Potocki's painting because that image was something I was too ashamed to face. But once that dark instantiation of self was firmly in the past, I came to appreciate the painful beauty she'd captured in that momentary truth.

Rose Frantzen is an artist who moved from New York City back to her small hometown of Maquoketa, Iowa, and opened her doors to any resident who would sit for a portrait. When I heard about her, I immediately wondered what kind of truths she'd been looking for, and what kind, if any, she had found.

Frantzen began the vast Portrait of Maquoketa project in 2005 after spending five years living and working in New York. She'd spent most of her career painting people in their twenties—experienced art models awash in the easy beauty of youth who could expertly hold a pose. Now she was painting men in their nineties, newborns, recent divorcées, and toddlers who needed to be incessantly entertained. She was painting a four-year-old who wouldn't speak after suffering a domestic trauma and a nurse so exhausted from work she couldn't stop falling asleep. She was painting a woman in a wheelchair who hadn't seen a photograph of herself in 30 years; she was so shocked by the image Frantzen created with her initial strokes that she refused to look at the portrait once it was done. In all, Frantzen painted 180 of Maquoketa's 6,000 residents. She worked in the alla prima method, a quick style of painting, and each portrait was completed in a single five-hour session. Some of the men told Frantzen they'd never looked in the eyes of their own wives for that long.

Frantzen describes the experience as transformational. Some of the sessions reminded her of becoming completely engrossed in a movie—of being lost in that alternate world—and then having to acclimate to your own reality once the credits roll. She recalls one woman who, not entirely lucid, said nothing aside from a continual repetition of the phrase "like I was sayin'"; Frantzen muttered the words to herself for hours after the woman had gone. During the project, Frantzen engaged all of her subjects in nonstop conversation: she asked them about their lives and told them things about her own because she believes that a certain level of vulnerability is essential to the process. In order to create an image, she needed to know about the things that can't be seen, about the joys, regrets, hopes, and disappointments that make us who we are. And the only fair way to do that is through an exchange, by showing subjects the parts of her own life that are invisible to the eye.

I ask Frantzen what seems like an obvious question: did she come to know these people in those five intimate hours? She thinks for a moment before answering. "I can only know them as much as I know myself."

In 2009, all 180 portraits were displayed at the National Portrait Gallery at the Smithsonian, an impressive achievement for any artist. But it's the show's current iteration, "Portrait of Maquoketa: The Dimensional View" at the Figge Art Museum in Davenport, Iowa, that clearly brings Frantzen the most joy. Rather than being displayed on a wall, the portraits are hung vertically on panels that are suspended from the ceiling, which allows the viewer to move through the work, or to circumvent it from a distance—much like the way one moves through or around a community. On the back of each panel are fragments of a landscape, a sweeping, panoramic view of Maquoketa at sunset that Frantzen created for the show. With the help of her husband, artist Charles Morris, the panels have been arranged so that from one precise point in the room, the landscape will cease to be fractured and appear to the viewer as whole.

Frantzen tells me that the response from Maquoketans, as they're known, has been overwhelmingly positive, and that out of the 180 people who sat for her, she knows of maybe 30 who didn't care for their portrait. Only five or six have told her to her face. The woman in the wheelchair who left Frantzen's studio unable to look at her image returned the next day, bringing along her son and his wife so they could have their portraits painted as well. Some of the town's older residents have told Frantzen that they plan to use their portraits in obituaries. Four residents have shown the portraits at their funeral. I ask Frantzen why she thinks people who were previously strangers would choose to have her work play such a monumental role in their lives. She cries a bit as she answers:

"By the end of the day, I loved them. Maybe they saw that."

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