By Tom Wachunas
EXHIBIT: Composing Identities, paintings by Melissa Markwald, THROUGH FEBRUARY 21, 2016, at Studio M in the Massillon Museum, 121 Lincoln Way East, Massillon, Ohio www.massillonmuseum.org 330.833.4061
“Faces are the most interesting things we see; other people fascinate me, and the most interesting aspects of other people – the point where we go inside them – is the face. It tells all.” - David Hockney
“It’s really absurd to make…a human image with paint, today, when you think about it…But then all of a sudden, it was even more absurd not to do it.” - Willem de Kooning
“Painting is the most magical of mediums. The transcendence is truly amazing to me every time I go to a museum and I see how somebody figured another way to rub colored dirt on a flat surface and make space where there is no space or make you think of a life experience.” - Chuck Close
Featuring 10 very large oil portraits (each 6’ x 7 1/2’, with nine in Studio M, and one hanging in the lobby), this is Melissa Markwald’s BFA Senior Exhibition. She’s set to graduate from the Myers School of Art at the University of Akron in May 2016. In assessing the specifics of Markwald’s youthful vision, you can’t avoid admiring her hutzpah in tackling a prickly representational genre – one that has historically come into and out of art world favor with all the regularity of ocean tides – on such an imposing scale.
Massillon Museum’s Studio M, despite its somewhat sterile overhead lighting and low ceilings, is an intimate and effective enough venue for looking at paintings within certain scale and spacing parameters. Here, though, the experience of standing before such oversized faces can be at once somewhat stifling and delightfully surreal. As viewers, we might feel like citizens of Lilliput, simultaneously cautious and curious in the presence of so many Gullivers.
Still, in transcending human anatomical dimensions to the extent we see here, these works are pleasantly intrusive invitations to consider portraiture beyond the merely cosmetic incidentals of “individuality.” Instead, you might consider seeing them as allegories of a society far too fond of enlarging itself, of building and celebrating the predictable and superficial (think about all the megalomaniacal clutter on Facebook) in the name of declaring – almost desperately so – a uniquely meaningful identity. In her statement for the exhibit, Markwald tells us, “…These passages of paint allow me to construct identities rather than just capture them.”
These constructions are a hybridization of some notable Modernist influences. There is a nod in the direction of Abstract Expressionism’s ideology of painting as a larger-than-life documentation of the painter’s decisions and actions, as well as a tentative kinship with Warholian idol-making. And while generated from photographs, Markwald’s canvases eschew the intense hyper-detailing and impersonal surfaces of Chuck Close’s monumental portraits of friends and family (which tended to have the detached look of police mug shots), in favor of something more overtly warm and lyrical.
While the visible traces of Markwald’s brushwork are subtle and relatively homogenized when compared to, say, the startling paroxysms of gestural activity in Willem de Kooning’s notorious Woman portraits, her paintings nonetheless lend themselves to viewing in the abstract. Think of them as soft landscapes of a kind. Nowhere is that aspect more possible to embrace than in two portraits, side-by-side and head-to-head, that present sidelong views of the face. One is Markwald’s self-portrait, the other of her friend, Alyssa Williams. To “read” the individual features and expressions, we instinctively tilt our heads to orient ourselves for a more “personal” contact. Such images prompt us to alter our movement and/or position in the same way we might walk through and examine a vast natural setting. The act of looking ceases to be a strictly psychological encounter with a static figure in a neutral, compressed space. Like the act of painting, looking can become a physically kinetic event in real time.
For sheer potential, I think Markwald’s aesthetic is fertile territory for even more intriguing developments, having already laid a solid enough foundation on which to build. Hopefully she will continue probing that potential as she faces, so to speak, the horizon of a promising future in painting.
PHOTOS, from top: Self; Alyssa Williams; Matt; Alyssa