Fashion magazines have shaped pop culture and the ideal of beauty for decades. Young girls flip through the glossy pages, in awe of the flawless-looking models who line them. Critics focus on the negative complexes these images may impart to readers, while others choose to indulge in the escapism that fixation on beauty provides. Oakland-based artist Serena Cole, however, has turned her girlhood infatuation with these publications into art. “My childhood obsession with fashion magazines has affected my work over time, through my association with these images with a better, more satisfactory life than the one I had growing up off the grid,” says Cole.
This fascination with fashion magazines was the direct inspiration behind Cole’s recent series titled “Black Mirror.” The collection consists of colored pencil and gouache on paper, and features intricate portraits against dark backgrounds. “I wanted to make some exquisite portraits, more detailed, more attentive, than I had ever made before,” says Cole. “Then I started searching for the right images, and it occurred to me that the sources I had found were all models or actors made to sit still and have their picture taken, looking out at the camera; that the reason for their being in the image was to be looked at, to be desired, to be an idealized avatar for the magazine reader.
“I chose to render the figures like they are acknowledging being a subject of longing, but also staring back with an intense, confrontational gaze. They return and reverse the subject/viewer relationship and create a mirror-like visual dialog with whomever happens to get caught in their stare: Who is really the subject?”
Cole’s paintings, she says, aren’t as much about beauty as about society’s love of beauty: “I find models and actors to be fascinating subject matter for my artwork, not because of who they are, but what they represent. Very few people recognize models by name — by profession they are erasable, re-moldable clay figures, capable of changing their image completely to fit our latest fantasies. They are literally without identity.
“Actors represent different, but similar modes of escapism for those who either see their films or fantasize about their paparazzi-captured, blitzed-out lifestyles. While we know their names, how much do we really know about them and how much has been projected onto them by our own fantasies? Either way, to me making portraits of them is inherently making portraits of our own unhappy culture; images we long to live vicariously through.”
Click here to see more of Cole’s work.