A Thin Disguise
The Art of Viky Garden


There is something else going on between her and me. Cindy Sherman (1)

'This room is going to be very lonely when they go', Viky Garden, portrait artist reflects. It¹s an insufferable thought at this stage of the creative process. The characters of her paintings are the most exquisite creatures and to the artist obviously pose possibilities and clues to her own identity. Yet they mysteriously occupy a non-comfort zone between self-portrait and fictionalised subject.

To attempt to elucidate the complex expressions they wear, I suggest 'reserved, haughty, aloof'. But there is a transparency to this armour and I soon realise I am being implored by ten sets of eyes so locked into fragility and timorous spirituality that I find myself both hostage and potential liberator.

Behind each subject the backgrounds are flat and lack clue to setting either temporal or spatial. The facial plains are based on contour drawings. They are moulded with paint from the contours of the weary heart within and shaped into the face and shoulders without. They are simultaneously naked and adorned. Each wears a signature head-dress. One a red turban. Another a fur muff with dangling baubles. A swimming cap. Wedding veil. A harlequin's cloche. The millinery is voguish and graphic. It acts as the snag that pulls one into these hauntingly arresting paintings. They have a certain uncomfortableness very different from the effortless pose of a glamour shot. These are holocaust faces enduring a quiet desperation. The whimsical head attire attests to the fluke of fate which survival is.

Both of the artist's parents came to New Zealand as refugees of the Second World War. Her mother from Poland and her father from Greece. Her mother recalls incredible hunger on a crowded train trip (which Viky's grandmother did not survive) that took her via Persia and Siberia before she boarded a ship for New Zealand.

The elaborate head-dress of the subjects in A Thin Disguise is a claim to a heritage that has been a long time erased. The paintings are fictions based on the 'if' of imagination. They emerge from that uneasy freedom where an absence of detail consents to a contrivance of identity. Yet there is a lived and experienced knowledge behind these constructs. It's not a front, a red herring, or a distraction but the external attire of an inherited and thereby innate sense of style. For some, no matter how ugly the world gets, the act of knowing what beauty is, of how it is achieved, serves as a coping mechanism.

Garden works in a directorial mode. That is she conceives, models, costumes, performs and paints the work. She is artist as poseur. And in the relationship that evolves between the artist and the subject a huge tension is built. She is presenting herself in early Renaissance Grand Master composure so that the subjects prefigure an eminence and stature. Yet the expression of doubt and vulnerability signifies an imposter in this role. The void that acts as background is designed to activate a sense of loss. The resulting paradox suggests there is a direct circuit between the heights of artifice and the depths of lived reality.

It's on this shifting ground that New York artist Cindy Sherman's work also operates. In the referencing between self and construct there is something inexplicit being played out. 'A game of doing and being, attracting and rejecting, making oneself beautiful and making oneself ugly, seducing and retreating into oneself' (2). The drama is palpable in that it is all locked up within the image.

What isn't secured in this process is the real identity of the artist. To present so many variations of self only confounds. The artist becomes actor and evader, promising that the real artist lies in proximity to all of the images and yet never fully realised in a single fiction.

Critics have ruminated over Cindy Sherman's earlier Film Still series asking the same question. Those works are concerned only with artifice and the spectator there is cautioned that 'the surface is everything'. 'To go beyond that is to risk all' (3). In Viky Garden's work to speculate is to be the object of the gaze. Through the act of looking you enter a fragile territory of seduction and evasion. The disguise has succeeded in luring the spectator into its labyrinth and thrown the key, to the real identity of the artist, out of reach.

Further armoured by a self-possession that takes on an almost perverse stance, the women in these paintings enact a pride and dignity that the dispossessed covet. They conceal the fact that they gamble with the appearance of not gambling. They observe and seemingly desire nothing from the object of their gaze. Except that is for Edith's Turban where a small hint of longing for something beyond has crept into her face. It's the first glimpse of a confidence that the world is becoming a place to be renegotiated. The healing is almost complete. The disguise has served its purpose and more.

1. Els Barents. Introduction to Cindy Sherman, Schirmer/Mosel of Munich for the Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam 1982, p.12.
2. ibid., p. 9.
3. ibid., p. 10.

Originally published in Art New Zealand 77 Summer 1996