Wednesday, February 4, 2015

Our Portraits Our Selves: Focus on Alexandra Tyng

The fifth in a series where we explore the female self-portrait in contemporary realism.  

In compiling the growing list of paintings and writings about self-portraits, I found that some artists had so much work, from such a fascinating perspective that they needed a whole blog to themselves to fully explore the complexities of what they are accomplishing in paint. 

Last time I blogged about the use of the “Youthful Doppelganger” to explore self-portrait themes that are specific to the artist’s youth. Alexandra Tyng does just that when she paints her intense visual memories from her childhood. They are essentially self-portraits of Alex as a child at different ages.

Alexandra Tyng, The Unseen Aspect

Her painting, The Unseen Aspect centers around a vivid and significant experience Alex had when she was about 6. In August 2013, Alex had a solo show in Rockland, Maine which featured this painting, along with many others on the theme of her childhood.

“I was at my grandparents’ house at the Eastern Shore of Maryland. My mother told me to go upstairs, but I stopped as I saw the entire second floor enveloped in a sheet of flame. I knew it was in my mind and not actually happening, but it scared me so much I refused to go up the stairs. My mother said ‘Nonsense! There is no fire up there.’ To which I said, ‘The house is going to burn down!’ and I refused to go up those stairs, which were in the old part of the house. I had to use the other stairs from then on.”

Years later, after the house was sold, and both of Alex’ grandparents had passed away, her mother got the news that the house had burned down.

The Unseen Aspect is about Alex’s first experience of precognition. Alex says that when she heard the news about the house, she realized she already knew it and was expecting it to happen. “At the time I felt that I had somehow caused the house to burn down.” This self-imposed guilt was especially painful because Alex knew that her mother, an architect, had designed the addition to the house.

Alex describes the symbolism depicted by the girl digging in the sand at the edge of the water. Water being a collective unconscious, the edge where water meets land is the edge of consciousness, and then, the act of digging up something brings it into consciousness. Her youthful doppelgänger finds a mysterious glowing object…(the dangerous gift of precognition)…and shows it to her mother.
Alex says, “I also find the gap of understanding between parent and child very interesting. A mother, however close, cannot understand everything about her daughter. I’m thinking about my own daughter here, too.”

She also talks about the impending storm and the erosion of the land. “To me they imply that nothing is solid or dependable, and something ominous is about to happen. There are footprints in the sand walking from the right to the left. Right is usually associated with the rational and concrete, Left; with the irrational and unknown.”

“The footprints go between the mother and daughter to the boat, but no one is in the boat. I am using the boat to represent a journey over water, and this can take many forms but in this painting it is about the journey to the underworld, or death. It refers to my mother not wanting to know about the future death of her own mother.” 

The symbol of the boat also alludes to Alex’s own journey; she began the painting just after her own mother died.
Alexandra Tyng, New World
The same boat appears again in her painting, New World, depicting a mother and baby, drifting at sea, seemingly alone and unprotected, but also content and safe.

After her mother died, Alex says,  “I thought a lot about how she navigated some of the hardships she went through. In this painting I imagined how life must have been like for her as a single mother in the 1950s. She’s adrift, not steering, and there is no indication of which way she is headed. Maybe she doesn’t know. She has left a comfortable existence behind her and is venturing into new, uncharted territory. The apple is a reference to the expulsion from the Garden of Eden, and to the apple seeds that were brought to New England by Anne Hutchinson—her ancestor, whom she admired for her independent thinking and feminist viewpoints—who was expelled in the 1600s from the Massachusetts Bay Colony.”

Alex was also inspired by literature about Colonial times and related it to her life situation as a child.

Alexandra Tyng, The Letter A
The Letter A is a portrait of myself at age five. We lived on a narrow street in the city where the kids used to draw in the street because hardly any cars came through. In the painting I'm annoyed at being interrupted while I'm totally absorbed in drawing. The world in my drawings is based partially on my imagination and partially on what is going on around me. The Letter A is my attempt to describe how it felt to be this age: moving away from self-centeredness, towards awareness of the world around me, and of myself and seeing my parents as autonomous human beings.”

“The Letter A refers to the theme of the novel The Scarlet Letter. The story resonated with me when I read it in high school because I saw my parents as the two main adult characters and I identified with their daughter, Pearl. Pearl perceives the truth of her parents’ unusual relationship, but she has no understanding or patience for the conventions that [keep her parents apart].”

Through her childish wisdom and refusal to conform, Pearl becomes a catalyst for positive change. In the painting I put the letter “A” in many places, including the triangular arrangement of the child and parents and in the letters and drawings on the street, and in the bodice of the mother’s dress. There’s a big A that points towards the father who is standing up the street from the mother and child. I exaggerated the perspective on purpose to emphasize the child and de-emphasize the father, kind of a visual way of showing the child’s subjective viewpoint.”

Alexandra Tyng, Legacy

Alex also depicts herself as a young adult, observing her father in the throes of creativity, but with the added perspective of being a creative adult herself.

In her painting, Legacy, Alex explores the difference between the life of an artist and the legacy he or she passes on.

Legacy shows my father in a tower, working on a watercolor. His children look in but they cannot get to him, and the glass is misty so their view of him is slightly obscured. Each of his children sees him through a different window, or different perspective. He is busy creating, making the most of his life, absorbed in the moment, while the children have their own lives to live. Legacy can refer to your creative legacy, or to material things you pass on to the next generation. While working on this painting I was thinking about myself painting in my studio and my relationship to my own children.” 

Employing the “Youthful Doppelganger” as model and muse…gives the artist an interesting dual perspective; omniscient adult observer of their own remembered and imagined childhood.  The artist is at once inside and outside the model; possessing distance and perspective, along with intimate knowledge. The artist is both actor and director in the drama she is inspired by.

Be looking for future installments, as the Cecilia Beaux Forum blog explores the many possibilities and applications of the Female Self-Portrait theme. Little did I know what a fascinating can of worms we opened when we started looking at how women artists portray themselves.

Written by Judy Takács
Chair New Media Relations
Cecilia Beaux Forum
Portrait Society of America

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