Gone, But Not Forgotten
Imitation of life (and death) at La Follette Gallery
by Chuck Adams
|Eirene, by Jean Denis
In Jean Denis’ current show at La Follette Gallery, “Fare Well!,” she presents portraits of portraits of ancient Egyptians who were still living when they were portrayed. This brief summary makes it seem like Denis is a postmodern artist with a penchant for ideas, not craft. But just the opposite is true. The Fall Creek resident is a traditional artist reacting to a passion for a particular (and peculiar) style of portraiture — a passion fomented from a book she bought only because it had the word “portrait” in its title. That book was The Mysterious Fayum Portraits. While Denis knows that an art book stoking her obsession isn’t “quite as romantic as going to Egypt,” she was so fully taken by the life emanating from the portraits of men and women who lived over 2,000 years ago that she had to respond to it in the only way she knew how, by studying it and painting it.
From the book, Denis (who won a Juror’s Choice award in last year’s Mayor’s Art Show for a Fayum-style portrait) learned that the portraits were mostly done in north-central Egypt during a time when Greeks and Romans alternately ruled that country. The portraits were painted while the subjects were still alive and, upon death, were placed over the mummy inside the sarcophagus as a visual memorial. The Fayum portraits were mostly done using the encaustic method — mixing heated beeswax with pigments and applying strokes one layer at a time — and for the most part outlived the mummies themselves. For Denis, portraiture “shows us actual people as they looked when they were alive,” but a Fayan portrait “captures something more.” What that something is Denis can hardly explain in words. “It was something about them that called me,” she says. “These things are 2,000 years old, and they still look like they’re alive.”
Perhaps it is the artist’s desire for her own immortality that pushes Denis’ fascination with the process and the result of encaustic portraiture. To this day, works of art have helped many people make their permanent mark in both time and space. While Mozart’s body disintegrates, his symphonies live on at the Hult Center; while Van Gogh died a poor, mentally-disturbed recluse, his paintings will carry his name to eternity. The painters of the Fayum portraits went uncredited and thus forgotten. It is no fluke that Denis obscures part of her own Fayum portraiture with her stamp-size signature (which I usually detest, but find it appropriate given this context). But in picking up the encaustic medium, this quest has required Denis to develop “skill far beyond any medium” she had previously employed.
After much trial and error, Denis eventually took an encaustics class but found the modern processes it taught didn’t produce what she wanted. “I wanted more shading and blending, simulating skin and eyes,” Denis says, “and the [modern process] wasn’t conducive to that.” So she temporarily forgot all she was taught in that class and went back to grinding wood ash from her fireplace to mix with the wax, more in line with how the ancient Egyptians employed pigmented beeswax. “I wanted to be true to the original purpose,” Denis explains, “which was to perpetuate these people’s existence and to make them have eternal life. I was just carrying that on as best as I could.”
For Denis’ show at La Follette, she selected the portraits in the book that she most resonated with and went about replicating them. But, she explains, these are not exact copies. Just as Gus Van Sant’s shot-for-shot remake of Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho is nowhere near the original, Denis’ copies are as much informed by her own artistic sensibility as the skill with which she employs her encaustics. In terms of “life,” Isarous comes the closest to feeling like you’re standing in front of a real person. The subject’s glassy eyes feel real, a glimpse of fragility and mortality peeking through. Others feel more pictorial (and novel) than realistic, while Madonna and Child is perhaps too unfinished. For the most part the hand-made wood frames (built by Denis’ neighbor, Nan Reid) fit well with the portraits. Come to think of it, maybe it is the ideas that draw you in most at this show. In a postmodern, curious world, that’s nothing to be ashamed of.
“Fare Well!” kicks off the First Friday ArtWalk and continues through Sept. 30.