"Following the look" - A view of Maia Zer's self-portraits.
an article by Aya Lurie
Between the years 1986 and 2003, Maia Zer painted 16 self-portraits in oil paints on wood, linen and Intaglio. These portraits, painted from her early twenties up until today, reveal Zer's interest in the components of graphical representation, and are evidence to the metamorphosis in her strict self conception. From the beginning of her path, Zer has chosen a figurative style, adhering to reality; Her naturalist view is directed in a type of "repressed agression", such as is found in the early portraits of Otto Dix or even Frida Kahlo, even though Zer isn't striding down the path of Surrealism and folklore. She tends to apply selective choice in describing the details of reality, in order to assemble a representation of a succinct and condensed metaphor, whilst undermining the fidelity of the given metaphor. Her paintings possess an undeviating pictorial quality, bare, devoid of atmospheric poeticism and virtuoso superfluity. The honesty deriving from her self-portraits reflects an intensive fascination, characterized by profound manifestation of moods and feelings, dark as they may be, all the while obviously rejecting the "beauty" and "Fancy" qualities of the romantic.
An expressive example of this is discovered as early as a self portrait of the artist, painted in 1987. (Picture 1) Zer's image is conveyed as enveloped with sorrow: She is painted in black and white, her face forbearing and unbecoming (An obvious distortion compared to her actual handsome character). On the other hand, her head is adorned with a shiny gold crown, a heavy cloth is spread behind her, decorated with a botanical pattern in (royal) red, as her look is set straight forward, in direct confrontation. The extreme emotional standpoint described is supported by the dichotomous array, rich in confrontations, materialistic wealth (in texture and color) and monochromatic depressing colors, values of ugliness and beauty, self-loathing and (borderline narcissistic?) self admiration. Zer's later portraits illustrate a sublimated process of the formation of her identity. Even so, the main metaphor remains based on contradictory values, that translate into a presence saturated with silent and secret inner tension.
(Picture 1: Untitled, 1987, Intaglio,
60 x 65 cm, The Artist's Collection)
As in any painting genre, the portrait aspires to display the painted as a representation of the vision perceived and registered by the artist. This is a question-raising situation regarding the relativity of the painter's insights on the painting, their ability to translate their perception, and the expression of the gap between the original subject's appearance and its plastic manifestation. The portrait must reflect the character of the portrayed individual, so that its identity is not mistaken with another. This portrayal must include and reflect the personality components of the portrait's subject. The portrait has one referent (the subject) and two goals to achieve the expression of external resemblance and inner character. In order to truthfully reflect the "Inner truth" of the subject, the artist must penetrate the superficial appearance barrier, understand the underlying intricacy, define it, and portray it. This gap seemingly diminishes in the case of the self-portrait: A person is aware of himself, displaying his own intrinsic self. However, in the self-portrait, the artist himself becomes both the subject and the object, and thus the artist carries the roles of the presenter as well as the viewer. The subject's view is directed inwards, towards its own impression, as reflected from the mirror, while at the same time, the same view is directed outwards, towards the spectator. The mirror reflecting the characters appearance, serves as an important part in the way the person becomes self-aware and simultaneously discovers in the process of assembling his personality, his appearance as viewed and defined by others. The eye contact, that same intersection of looks created between the subject portrayed and the viewer, makes the viewer a partner in that intimate, so very personal moment, in which a person examines their own reflection in the mirror, and places "the look" itself as a fundamental subject of the piece.
In one of Maia Zer's self-portrait paintings from 1986 (Picture 2) her image is shown as the reflection from an oval mirror, in the center of a plaster frame, ornamented in a wood-like botanical pattern.
(Picture 2: Untitled, 1986,
Oil on wood, 25 x 30 cm, Private collection)
Zer herself is wearing a brown shirt, buttoned up to her collar, and her hair is parted and straight to perfection. The style of the frame's design is reminiscent of German or Austrian folk works, her wardrobe and meticulous hairdressing, chosen beforehand for the sake of the portrait, also point to those same traditions. The head-on look in her face, and piercing gaze, transmit a feeling of strictness and severity. The portrait seems as if it corresponds with the tradition of portraits that are characterized by suppressed decadent expression, such as the Germans, Otto Dix and Christian Schade. The mirror plays an important role (of course) in this portrait, as it is naturally a major tool in self-portrait paintings. The painter lifts his eyes to the mirror again and again, in order to faithfully describe the reflection of his image, the image as seen from the "outside". However, the mirror is not entirely credible. In fact, the mirror displays an opposite world (right/left), a world of optical illusion, in many ways allegorical to the painting itself. Throughout the history of art, the mirror has stood for vanity, an occupation with the unimportant, the fading and the deceiving. The foolish pursuit of beauty, taken to the extreme as expect in the female context, depicted in its fullest in the Wicked Witch's question, "Mirror, mirror on wall, who's the fairest of them all?" from the classic story, "Snow White". The obsession with beauty and extroverted sexuality is rejected by Zer, however she chooses to confront the deceitful element in the mirror's image, and tries to undermine the perception of the mirror as an objective and unbiased object. Zer paints the mirror so that it reflects her own image alone, ignoring the need to display the other elements in the room. The mirror's credibility is also damaged by a strong feeling of artificialness, exhibited in the well-directed portrait. It seems that the same "look" takes a pivotal place in her portrait from 1989, painted during her stay in Holland (Picture 3).
(Picture 3: Untitled, 1989, Oil on wood,
26 x 38.5 cm, Private Collection)
In this small-sized painting, overflowing with bright light, Zer appears in a classic format as a statue, tilted in three quarters of the body (this stance was popular among painters, as it enabled free head movement, from the mirror to the canvas, while avoiding moving the rest of the body). Her look is set forward, framed in a frozen stare. The folds of the fabric on her body also possess a static quality, almost sculptural, reminiscent of the work of the Italian painter, Piero della Francesca. It seems as if the plant, growing quietly in the background, is the only organic entity in the room. The conflicting relation between the solid mass of the human body and the fragility of the amorphous plant creates a mute dramatic scene in which Zer's terminal look remains silent. It is implied that the dramatic methods Zer uses in this portrait corresponds with Lucian Freud's early self-portraits (Picture 4), in which are abundant, underneath the surface, despair and great difficulty.
(Picture 4: Lucian Freud, Self-Portrait, 1946,
The Tate Museum Collection, London)
Freud's early portraits are schematically sketched in an almost graphic manner (as opposed to his rich colorful language in later years), and a thorny plant appears near the figure (usually), symbolic of the figure's loneliness and existential distress.
The presence of Zer's silent, terminal stare is etched into cognition in her self-portrait from 2001, in which her grave character is displayed against the window (Picture 5).
(Picture 5: Untitled, 2001, Oil on Linen,
45 x 70 cm, Private Collection)
The ascetic atmosphere of the room, which consists of merely a window and a table, can be seen in the description of the painted individual herself, wearing a black, long sleeved turtleneck shirt. Maia's face is depicted against the window, lighted from the outside, in the back. The bright light dazzles and blinds the artist and the viewer both, turning Maia into a kind of shadow. The painting is wrapped in feeling of mystery, once more, dealing with the deceitful element of the painted metaphor. Zer chooses in this painting as well, not to paint the natural surroundings, viewable from the window. This image contributes to empowering the main metaphor displayed, and emphasizes the effect of the window reflecting in the glass upon the table. The horizontal format of the painting is relatively rare in portraits. By this choice, the artist emphasizes the trinity (the holy trinity) of the windows she stands against, in the way a "glowing halo" effect is created, and touches the tip of her blond hair. These manipulative methods disrupt the fidelity of the painted metaphor and accentuate its artificial essence and illusionary status. It is possible that Zer's admonishing glare towards the viewer (as well as towards herself) is a warning, in fact, of the false charms fundamental to the act of painting.
In Maia Zer's last self-portrait (Picture 6), a portrait that is also the largest of her portraits, and the only one in which her body appears almost in its entirety, almost all the components that appeared in her earlier portraits are present (three quarters of the body tilted, impoverishment of color, an uncompromising severe face and a penetrating inquisitive stare), however to these is supplemented a kind of "professional declaration" and passion to the same materialistic culture, that had passed, long ago, from the world.
(Picture 6: Untitled, 2003, Oil on linen,
Golconda Gallery Collection)
Maia collides past culture, represented by the lustrous, richly textured drapes, set behind her, and the modern present represented by the "Breuer" chair, giving a sense of floating, or instability, to the little she sits upon. The heavy and splendid drapes behind her, look like theater curtains, blocking the viewer's view, holding its secrets. Playing the role of the "faithful guardian", Zer seems to repel our look, and thusly turn the "observation" itself into a dialogue at the basis of her illustrative creation. Zer situates herself on the timeline of a longstanding painting tradition of self-portraits which describe "The artist at work". In this tradition almost all of the artist's tools have reached an almost mythological position: The painter's easel, the palette and brushes. Zer however, in her characteristic way, chooses to suppress the process of the professional statement, and describe the brush as an integral part of the hand that holds it, in a way that the act of painting becomes an inseparable part of the body, of herself.