They gaze out at you, their delicate features and flawless skin startling - not for their perfection, but rather for the crisscrossing of creases, wrinkles and rumples that render the usually bland fashion models somewhat eerie in the oil paintings of Alonsa Guevara.
Guevara, a native of Chile who is obtaining her master's degree in painting from the New York Academy of Art, is having a solo exhibit at Expressiones Cultural Center in New London. It opens with a reception on Saturday.
Her body of work depicting fashion models asks the viewer to question what is beautiful in a woman - whether the models are life-sized heads, inhabit surreal worlds, or represent mythological archetypes in tableaus.
Her process for creating these disruptions of idealized beauty is straightforward: Guevara takes pages from fashion magazines and crumples the most recognizable and frequent faces she sees into a ball. When she flattens the image back out, the wrinkles are in place. Working from direct observation, she paints the figures and faces as is - and in so doing, expresses the thematic element of her latest body of work.
"They are just paper," Guevara says of the images, shrugging nonchalantly in front of one particularly dramatic diptych that features the model from two perspectives - one canvas portrays her right side, the other, her left. In this work, Guevera has also distorted the limbs of the model, whose arms zig-zag as if fractured violently - an effect that is meant to heighten the awareness that the model is only a one-dimensional paper image that has been folded and unfolded.
"They're a creation, an image made to please us," Guevara says of the images that depict an unattainable female beauty that advertising companies churn out en masse.
What Guevara wants the viewer to realize is that the models consumers see in magazines are not real - yes, they may be objectively beautiful women to begin with, but once photographed, their imperfections and, by extension, their individuality are blanched out in Photoshop, and the end result is an illusion.
Therefore, Guevara concludes, women need not compare themselves to these seductive, poreless and soulless images. Her work seeks to dislodge the carefully constructed advertising deceit of female beauty.
As Peter Drake, dean of academic affairs at the New York Academy, said, "It's not just that the images of women are paper-thin; it is also that they have been scavenged and crippled by distress by the artist. They have been made into puppets, and the narratives that they have been entered into are also beyond their control. This to a degree replicates the condition that many women feel popular culture inflicts upon them."
Guido Garaycochea, artist and owner of Expressiones, said Guevera's art work is captivating in its dichotomy.
"The viewer is surprised all the time," said Garaycochea, pointing out the delicate brushstrokes that are imperceptible on the canvas - and conflict with the chasms that mar the "perfection."
Attracted to the 26-year-old's art work for its stunning technique, Garaycochea also wanted to showcase a younger artist in the process of artistic discovery and education. He hopes to have Guevara back after her master's is completed, at which point he believes her work will have inevitably evolved.
"She's in the process of exploration and questioning herself as an artist," said Garaycochea. One of the questions Guevara untangles is what is really beautiful - sifting through the ceaseless flow of imagery and messages her generation has been exposed to - a life experience that creates a unique dilemma for them, Garaycochea said.
"It's hard for them to see what part of their soul is theirs and what part is a prototype of beauty and happiness that they have been consuming," he said. "She is part of a generation that is stopping and taking a step back and saying, 'I am transforming myself in a product I don't want.'"
Guevara, though, seems to enjoy distilling the stereotypes that have cropped up repeatedly in advertisements, like her portraits of pop singers who she noticed were perennials in ads: Jennifer Lopez, Lady Gaga, Taylor Swift and Katy Perry. And while one can see their uniqueness, Guevara admits - Gaga is strange, Swift all-American - she still was intrigued by a pattern: they all were presented as polished images in various ads. And they all had a striking similarity in the ads, the same poses, the same expressions.
In three of her paintings for the exhibit, Guevara combines both still life and portrait. Using boxes that she created to arrange environments for the paper images of models, Guevara set up tableaus that she painted to resonate with mythological imagery.
In one, a model perches on a life-sized pomegranate fruit that has been spliced open, bursting with the fertility that the fruit implies. She is gazing in a mirror, and her reflection is what the viewer sees. On her back, the print of an ad is faintly visible. The symbolism pitches together vanity, fertility and femininity (the walls are the vintage salmon pink reminiscent of the '40s). In each box, Guevara plays with light and dark, a Renaissance technique known as chiaroscuro, noted Garaycochea, mostly to aid in creating dimension.
In another, Guevara has placed a model whose flat spine is undulating like a snake, as she reaches for an an oversized apple. The large, plastic flowers are fake, as is the fruit itself.
The myth of Pandora is evoked in a third painting, which is dark, unlike her other colorful works. The effect is an environment that is shrouded in evil doing, an Underworld of sorts. Yet, in a twist of irony, the women, who have creature-like mannerisms - one is half crawling - are having fun, said Guevara.
That is because, unlike the painting that references a myth, these paper images are stereotypes, not archetypes, a distinction important to the artist.
"Archetypes still exist - myths are truthful," said Guevara, contemplating the femme fatale, or a Persephone forever attached to her mother.
"Stereotypes are something culture brings to you," Guevara concluded, pleased that it is fittingly the stereotype - the paper women - who are releasing evil upon the world in her painting. In fact, she added, one could interpret the spiny insects taking flight as symbolizing all stereotypes: scary, noisy, persistent and swarming everywhere.