1.4 / Review

I Wanna Be Adored

By Randall Miller December 3, 2009

Dry and dying floral arrangements and two figurative paintings adorn the walls of Serena Cole's solo exhibition, "I Wanna Be Adored" at Triple Base Gallery. There was an old wooden chair placed not quite in the corner. It seemed like a good spot to wait in the golden tomb the artist created, and hope for the possibility of sketching out a portrait of the "most powerful and beautiful" survivor described in the exhibition literature.

Crown of Love, 2009; watercolor, colored pencil, and gold leaf on paper on panel; 50 x 42 in. Courtesy of the Artist and Triple Base Gallery, San Francisco.

Cole's paintings fuse together tropes from editorial fashion spreads with the visual motifs common to Byzantine, Gothic, and Renaissance canons of Christian art to create new icons. Crown of Love (2009) employs the familiar pyramidal composition of a pieta, a dramatic image from Christian mythology in which Mary cradles Jesus' crucified body. In Cole’s image, a pair of pouty, unblemished contemporary figures, immediately recognizable as advertising clichés, reenacts the traditional Lamentation scene. By replacing Mary's fraught expression with a dreamy stare and slightly parted lips, Cole substitutes the church's idealized version of feminine virtue with a more modern ideological trinity: that of fleeting youth, tragic beauty, and sexual freedom, the kind marketed by the likes of Abercrombie & Fitch, or Calvin Klein. The Christ figure becomes a similarly reductive portrait of youthful vulnerability. The alienated rebel with the tousled hair and defiant gaze is a familiar martyr. Despite his tender countenance, he is forever bearing the cross of middle-class male angst.

For all the familiarity of the pearly figures, their features appear to be more Western European than American, perhaps alluding to the suggestions of Übermensch racial purity fermenting just below the surface of the ads from which Cole appropriated these models. Flashbulb chiaroscuro flattens the figures against a dark, abyss-like background that at once decontexualizes them and emphasizes the blown-out whiteness of the flesh tones. Only a thin band of Byzantine gold leaf separates the couple from the darkness that surrounds them.

All We Ever Wanted Was Everything, 2009; watercolor, colored pencil, acrylic, dye and gold leaf on paper on panel; triptych, 10 1/2 x 6 1/2 ft. Courtesy of the Artist and Triple Base Gallery, San Francisco.

The Byzantine motif is extended in All We Ever Wanted Was Everything (2009), a painting reminiscent of both the 6th C. imperial mosaic Justinian and Theodora at San Vitale in Ravenna and the crowning ceremony at the Miss America pageant. Set against a gilded background, six preening figures variously attired in skirts, crop-tops, and hot pants attend to a central haloed figure. She appears as if she is about to be honored with the type of floral garland awarded to victorious racehorses. Her intense stare and squared shoulders suggest an air of hubristic triumph amidst jealous competition. Cole borrows visual symbols from ancient imperial art to analyze the propagandistic qualities of glamour and fashion. In these paintings, the female body cannot escape the confines of advertising standards of rarefied beauty.

"I Wanna Be Adored" attempts to redress the ideals of beauty manufactured through editorial fashion campaigns from within the elastic parameters determined by the arbiters of glamour themselves. Because the fashion industry has become self-aware enough to wink at its own shamelessness, this proves to be challenging territory from which to offer fresh analysis. Artists such as Orlan, Marilyn Minter, and even Dave Lachapelle have successfully spurred new questions by stretching commercial representations of beauty to the point where they become grotesque. Cole may attempt to warp her figures slightly with the occasional awkward rendering of a body or an androgynous face, but more bracing visual tics have become commonplace within the pages of Vogue.

All We Ever Wanted Was Everything, 2009 (detail); watercolor, colored pencil, acrylic, dye and gold leaf on paper on panel; triptych, 10 1/2 x 6 1/2 ft. Courtesy of the Artist and Triple Base Gallery, San Francisco.

In the paintings, the subtle emphasis makes for a dull edge. Pretty things remain seductive while the conditions of commercialized beauty are all but condoned by Cole's attentive portraits. A thin veneer of art history and religiosity cannot hide the fact that fashion is represented here as just that. Questions that arise from Cole's fusion of fashion models and religious icons are not excavated much beyond cursory explanations of desire, consumer ideology, and idol worship that have become as cliché as pouty lips and smoky eyes.

I Wanna Be Adored is on view at Triple Base Gallery through December 20, 2009.

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