Self portrait, four times removed

By Michael Abatemarco
Sept. 18, 2009

Self-portraiture can be a way to look at ourselves objectively, as in a mirror. In her self-portraits, Santa Fe-based artist Erin Cone takes this idea of objectifying the self further by reducing her own image to studies in abstract design. Her relationship to her own image is not necessarily about capturing emotional content. Cone's treatment of the figure is divorced from any sense of environment by the exclusion of imagery that would give the viewer a frame of reference. It requires us to regard the figures she paints in relation to monochromatic fields and geometrical shapes that pass over the figures, changing their appearance the way a pane of glass can subtly change the true color of what is on the other side of it.

"I view the figures I paint, whether self or others, primarily as forms with which to compose dynamic, well-designed paintings," Cone told Pasatiempo. "My subject of choice is the human figure, because I am endlessly fascinated by the beauty and emotive strength of the human form. As I compose my paintings in a structurally abstract way, I am aware of the emotive power of the figure, but I consciously avoid directing that emotion in any specific way. I want to keep the image open to interpretation."

Cone, whose show of new acrylic paintings, titled Blessed Unrest, opens at Nüart Gallery on Friday, Sept. 18, uses painting to capture aspects of seeing that are taken for granted. The act of seeing becomes part of her subject matter, as though she is more interested in representing how she sees than what she sees. In some paintings, she captures imagery as though looking through the distorting lens of a camera. In a painting titled Lucid, for instance, we see a shadowy echo of the central figure's face that looks like the kind of double image in a photograph that captures a body in motion. Soft blurring of the portrait's form also suggest an out-of-focus photo.

Cone begins her work with a photo shoot using a digital camera and herself as the model. But, despite the suggestion of photographic imagery, the final product is pure painting. After working out design ideas on the computer (the way other artists make a study or sketch before turning to the canvas), her work becomes a challenge of rendering complex digital imagery through paint.

"My execution of the idea is very traditional — a drawing on the canvas followed by repeated layers of paint and glazing," Cone said. "When I am the model, there's an element of self-expression bordering on performance art, and I also act in the role of photographer to take the photos. The digital work I do is very much like graphic design and collage. Only after I have gone through these various stages do I finally proceed to painting. So my process encompasses several diverse disciplines to end up as traditional painting."

Paintings of Cone in a red dress are perhaps the most traditional portraits included in Blessed Unrest. Countenance and Disposition, two paintings that show the figure turning away with face hidden, seem to focus more on bodily gesture than on the magic realism that pervades much of the artist's other work. But a painting called Linger turns the focus to tonal contrasts rather than gesture. Chiaroscuro in Linger has as much to do with hard and soft lines as it does with lights and darks.

Many of the figures Cone paints merge with their surrounding colors in such a way that we do not realize that our mind's eye fills in the forms suggested by what are only partial renderings. One look at the painting Distilled, for example, gives a sense of the full human form in a blouse, but the surrounding field of color is the same as that of the blouse, and very little of the actual figure is represented. The shadowy folds of the blouse help keep the imagery balanced somewhere between figurative realism and total abstraction. The same can be said of her painting Chance. We see the entire figure, even though only the face, neck, hands, and a few folds in the dress are rendered in any detail.

This minimalist approach to form is something Cone has been applying to her art since she began studying art history at the University of Texas. When she encountered the work of great masters, she found herself editing them in her mind. "I have a sense that masterworks, and indeed most visual art forms of any kind, benefit from simplicity," she said. Paraphrasing a thought expressed by the 19th-century French painter Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres, she continued, "The more simple the lines and forms, the greater the beauty and power."

In another visual experiment, Cone juxtaposes her self-portraits with simple geometric forms such as rectangles and squares. Floating freely on the canvas, these forms pass over the figures and distort them. The emphasis is not on realism but on design; leaving room for interpretation, they seem to be about capturing qualities of observance: the act of relating forms to one another as the eye apprehends them. "I do not want my imagery to be too literal," Cone said. "Being inherently universal and lacking overt symbolism, the simple geometric forms help maintain a level of minimalism. In formalist terms, the boxes and layers also help flatten the realism of the figure."

In the nondescript environments in which these figures exist, the emotive power of their movements, gestures, and poses are enhanced because they are apprehended in pure form. Cone's distorted imagery serves a dual purpose: it shows off the technical proficiency of the artist and gives the viewer a chance to determine narrative from the perspective of the artist's relationship with the self. Does she see herself unclearly, as in the blurry image titled Indistinct? The way in which these images are presented seems to capture candid, spontaneous moments, and suggests that there is nothing we can wonder about them that Cone has not thought of herself. In that way, her work is both playful and deceptively complex.