A Home in the Skin: Lauren McKenzie Noel at Kink
In a lush series of paintings depicting larger than life-size nude figures, Lauren McKenzie Noel explores the sensuous boundaries and psychological range of self portraiture. Nothing says “modern” with quite the same conviction as the self portrait, which in the centuries of Western art since Rembrandt has repositioned the human face and body in respect to history. In a self portrait the artist testifies to her own existential gravity, gazing as a witness from the thick of the past toward the present, staring at us.
Just three of the thirteen oil on canvas paintings in the exhibit “Self” at Kink Contemporary gallery are self portraits in the traditional sense, presenting a likeness of the artist’s facial features. The rest are headless or faceless, yet in other ways astutely observe the character of two very individual bodies, marked by the ebb and flow of life. These somatic renditions of the painter’s sisters are highly unusual portraits of flesh itself, which even in our overexposed culture remains concealed by layers of confusion and inhibition. McKenzie Noel’s brush follows the gentle convolutions of form and texture that characterize any human being – from head to toe. Lauren and her sisters don’t exactly read as “naked”, nor are they “nude” in the sense that their bodies have become objects of aesthetic contemplation. Instead the painter establishes an equivalence to living flesh through color and texture. McKenzie Noel’s manner of looking, and feeling, has a more than modern ambition – to see the body as it is, neither sexual, social, medical or effetely artistic. The ambition here is to get real. The phrase “birthday suit” might approximate this condition – the condition of innocence that (one hopes) is among the natural rights of women and men alike.
The title of a large, sprawling self portrait at Kink Contemporary is a short sentence that describes the woman looking back at us: “I reside in myself, broken, brave, and at peace.” Not that the words correspond exactly to what shines forth from this work. The Lauren McKenzie Noel in the painting may be a bit disheveled ( her hair blossoms out in a disintegrating umber halo), and as she leans unclothed, perhaps on the floor somewhere, propped up on her arms and hands — she looks tired, though hardly broken. But I believe the “brave” part, and the word “reside” also rings true. There is a sense of indwelling identity in this casually articulated body/face, as if form and hue and movement had tied themselves in a series of loose, expressive knots. The woman’s shoulders are half-folded upward as they catch the weight of her head in midair. Skin tones are reproduced in tones running from pale ocher through a range of half-umbers. Shadows streak down between her breasts, across the folds of her abdomen (creased like the palm of a hand, starred by the fateful strain of childbirth), flow over her folded left knee and thigh to the bottom of the canvas and thence melting into the body of our world-shadow.
The paintings at Kink Contemporary present their figure-persons somewhat the way that Michelangelo, and after him Auguste Rodin, conceived their depictions of human energy and character, breaking out of a block of raw material into brilliant articulation. All of McKenzie Noel’s bodies here are painted in formal isolation, divorced from any particular background, rendered against a warm wash of acrylic or oil paint. Some are cut off as if layered onto this blank space, severed at the head or waist. Others strain against or break through the edges of their canvas prisons, suggesting rebellion, struggle, and birth.
Nude self-portraits have become the particular province of women painters and photographers since at least the beginning of the last century, from black and white studies by Anne Brigman (shown originally at Alfred Steiglitz’ landmark gallery) and painter Paula Modersohn-Becker’s post-impressionist representations of herself, through Frida Kahlo’s and Alice Neel’s amazing studies of pain and age in relation to self concept, all the way to Jenny Saville, Janice Guy and countless others (Dana Schutz’ and her recent “Self –Exam” to name only one, shown last year at Transformer Station in Cleveland), making the self-portrait nude an established practice in the ongoing history of feminist art. There are even some male practitioners who have achieved remarkable heights of expressive plain-speaking in this non-genre genre – I’m thinking of the British painter Lucian Freud and American photographer John Coplans.
Lauren McKenzie Noel holds her own in this distinguished and revolutionary context. If self-understanding often benefits from a longer look by a colder eye, the gaze that this painter brings to bear on her on own face and body has the temperature just about right. Supplemented by the perspective supplied by a consideration of her sisters’ bodies, her venture into the lost territories of the self at Kink Contemporary conveys a sense of personal strength, as it traces the muscles and softer edges of the way that one person does, and does not, fit into the realities of a rapidly changing era.