Post Road Magazine #16

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Judith Page: Portraits in Plasma


My themes on the other hand concern cruel orders, unremitting accusations, treacherous friendships, innocentmen ruined.

—Tacitus, Annals of Imperial Rome

In describing his approach to recording the history of Imperial Rome, Tacitus distinguished himself from his contemporaries, who primarily recounted the glory and the grandeur of their times, by focusing his attention on the sometimes brave but more often appalling individual acts that constituted the memorable and the catastrophic. To concentrate one’s creative energy in difficult territory is not necessarily a rational decision nor a popular one. It is something that one just does— with joy, trepidation, curiosity, and without question.

I have obsessively focused my creative energy for the past twenty years on the human condition, exploring such subjects as the transcendence of death through regeneration, the abuse of power and the plight of the powerless, the struggle between physical necessity and spiritual values, and the fluidity of history—coagulating, dispersing, and reconstituting. I considermyself a visual historian, recording and interpreting the spirit of my times. Through the exploration of specific issues, I search for patterns, for the aberrant, for the profane, for the divine, for that elusive propellant that hurls us from onemoment to the next.

My art has consistently included the presence of the figure—not surprising, considering my focus on the human condition. The form, however, has swung between representation and abstraction, and between painting and sculpture. Many works combine both these approaches, and for the past ten years my art has also included collage, drawing, photography, sound, and text. My most recent body of work consists of portrait paintings of acquaintances, friends, and family that are influenced by such diverse sources as Roman portrait sculpture, the El Faiyûm encaustic portraits, Mexican vernacular art and artifacts, and contemporary television programming fromExtreme Makeover to the evening news.

My portraits begin as photographs and, through the addition of a gel-like paint, become both reliquary and visionary. The reliquary aspect of the paintings comes fromthe fragments of the original photographs—eyes, mouth, teeth, or bits of skin—that one can glimpse through the layers of paint. They are like the bone fragments that onemight view in a sculptural reliquary of a saint. The visionary aspect of the paintings involves the intuitive addition of paint over the photograph. Occasionally this action takes place in a passionate explosion; more often the process is deliberate and meditative. This blend of photography and painting allows me to reveal more about the character of the subject than the photograph itself— an expressive vision rather than a depiction.

Portraits in Plasma is an ongoing installation that consists of a selection of these portraits, most recently shown—in the format of a television viewing room—at The Aldrich Contemporary ArtMuseum. The variations inmeaning of the word plasma—from its origin as the Greek word, plassein, meaning “to mold,” to its contemporary use in reference to television (green translucent quartz), as a gaseousmedium, to the fluid part of blood, and as a substance extruded from the body of a spiritualist during a séance—are all relevant to the content of these portraits. I want Portraits in Plasma to embrace the essence of each subject by stripping away the superfluous and allowing the subject to transcend the mortal, perpetually dissolving and evolving before the viewer’s eyes, a vision both profane and divine.

—Judith Page

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