Lauren Palte at the Rust en Vrede Gallery
by Renzske Scholtz
Lauren Palte's show, entitled 'When I grow up', consists of a series of paintings of children dressed in various guises: karate master, femme fatale, ballerina and Spiderman. These paintings are translated from a collection of family snapshots into large-scale, colourful, expressive and carefully constructed portraits which evoke notions of identity, memory, nostalgia and the family album. The youthful innocence and eagerness to 'become' is daunted by the artist's brush. Drips of paint, scratch marks and empty spaces indicate that all is not well within these playful, pretty paintings.
Like Sally Mann, Gottfried Hellnwein, Marlene Dumas, Gail Goodwin, Terry Kurgan, and Nan Golding, Palte examines the notions of childhood, youth and innocence. Palte, however, uses mostly her self and her family as her model, and this incites a personal exploration that creates a narrative throughout these works. Dressed in various disguises, Palte assumes many different identities, perhaps to draw attention to the aspiration, options and expectations of 'becoming' but also the mutable, changing and shifting nature of identity. The 1920's French Surrealist photographer Claude Cahun's work depicts the artist in various guises such as tramp, doll, vampire, gymnast, swami, masked gypsy, braided girl, mannequin and angel. Cahun uses masquerade in these works to draw attention to the fluid nature of identity, gender and sexuality and to break and rebel against assigned gender and identity roles.Palte's work, in addition to this, examines how the photographic medium, through framing, cropping, selecting and editing can provide a heavily mediated memory. By translating these family portraits into paintings, Palte takes control of her own history.
Palte's translation of family photographs brings issues of the family to the fore. Parents endlessly document the growth and experiences of their children and often only the cute and loveable photographs make it to the family album in order to project an ideal and happy family. This allows the parent to shape, crop, mediate and edit that which will be remembered and excluded. Palte's interventions on the surfaces of her works - paint drips, markings, make-up, masks and scars - reveal what may lurk behind the façade of the generic, ideal family snapshot. Her works seem to reflect the more corporeal, visceral and emotive nature of the family. Palte says: 'Since photographs create a fiction of childhood and family, I am attempting to reveal the tensions inherent in these images and corrupt the ideology to reveal a more emotionally felt experience of childhood.'
In the most powerful work Boy's Bar mitzvah, members of the Palte family happily sit and smile at the audience through the photographer. The family dog, a very suburban Labrador in the left corner, establishes his Jewish-ness by wearing a Yarmulkah. Some family members are visibly erased from the painting and haunt the seemingly happy family unity. Dark rich colours, paint drips, and blue limbs and faces make this painting of a seamless, innocuous photograph seem distinctly eerie and unsafe.
Other works such as Spiderman, I Wanted to be a Pirate, Nurse and Sailor all deal specifically with the act of dressing up - where children don the clothes that may serve as signifiers of the aspirations, dreams and ideals that will form the basis of their adult identity. In Palte's paintings, as in most family albums, these roles are highly gendered - and the paintings question exactly to what extent the child has a choice in these roles that she/he will inhabit well into adulthood.
Issues of sexuality in the family album are also dealt with explicitly in erotic images such as Scared of Letting Go which features a leotard-wearing cherubic girl grasping a dripping cat. Two very different paintings of different girls in Minnie Mouse outfits are titled Every Time You Move I Show a Little More and 'Cause When You Say You Will It Always Means You Won't respectively - lyrics from the song Hey Mickey, You're So Fine, the sexually loaded tune to which the artist was dancing just after she posed for the photograph that has become the former of the two paintings.
'When I Grow Up' is a powerful first exhibition, solidly exposing the fictions and fractures that exist within the treasured family album and its white picket ideals of childhood.
Opens: February 21
Closes: March 16
Rust en Vrede Gallery
10 Wellington Road, Durbanville
Tel: (021) 976 4691
Hours: Mon - Fri 9am - 4.30pm, Sat 9am - 12.30pm