THE INDEPENDENT VOICE OF THE VISUAL ARTS
Margot Bergman, (top to bottom) Margaret (2017).
Images courtesy of Corvett vs. Dempsey and the artist.
by Shanna Zentner
When viewing the paintings of Margot Bergman, one is confronted with portraits that propose incongruity between self and body. What does it mean when a head has one crisp, glowing, saccharine eye while the other is muddled, scratchy or reddened and buried within painted flesh?
Are we meant to contemplate a dyad of selves, one perhaps false and idealized while the second is messy, unclear and, at times, crudely outlined?
Bergman is known for her thrift store paintings. These are made by painting a second portrait over a found portrait while allowing for parts of the original face to remain visible within the revised and reborn painting. Often, the original portrait is visible in the forehead—a kind of third eye—of the newer, larger portrait.
The effect provides space to question the relationships between outsider or naïve painting and Bergman’s work, as well as the psychological querying involved in describing a face within a face.
It is this psychological dimension, particularly the consideration of self-presentation, which is the substance of the work in her latest exhibition at Corbett vs. Dempsey gallery. These portraits emphasize the multiplicity of form required to describe a person using repeated and overlaid facial features rather than the face-within-a-face strategy in Bergman’s previous work.
Whereas the latter strategy invites a comparison between inner and outer versions of identity, the current portraits offer images in flux, not unlike Philip K. Dick’s image-shifting suits in Richard Linklater’s film adaptation of “A Scanner Darkly,” except without the obfuscation. Bergman’s characters are not hiding. They are confident, projecting awareness of their own complexity rather than confusion over their shifting natures.
The portraits’ eyes seem to rest either on top of or beneath the skin as opposed to being structurally integral to the head. Although differing dramatically from each other, each eye looks directly and unflinchingly outward. One might be tempted to describe the faces as dyads: two different pairs of eyes, therefore only two different souls occupying the same head.
Yet the lips often pronounce the chatter of a multiplicity. In Margaret, there are multiple sets of lips drawn boldly in crayon over painted lips of pink and ochre. The total number of mouths is unclear, creating the odd sensation of a mouth at rest while simultaneously in motion, possibly in speech.
In Brenda, the mouth is the central ingress. Paint strokes circle around each of the lips as if they had danced into existence, enclosing the mouth to form the face. In these paintings, the mouths show lips parted, dashed, circled and, occasionally, baring teeth.
In Sandy, a bold green dash crosses over the bottom of a pair of gray lips. The green is a crossing-out and a second mouth.
These are not passive portraits. The overlay of mouths describe active voices while the eyes demand our attention.
Sandy is a compelling example of the paintings’ examination of the relationship between head and environment. Sandy’s hair mimics the waves of the suggested seascape behind them. The hair becomes blue at its border with the blue sea and blue continues to take over the hair, replacing brunette waves with water.
The hair turns into background and vice versa, concretizing the interdependence of self. Is the head’s reflection of the surrounding, external world creating its environment, or is the environment infesting the head?
In Effie and Ida, the hair is illuminated on the right side by a light source outside of the painting’s frame. Besides the characters’ outward stares, this is the only clear gesture toward a world outside of the painted space. The illumination, outside of view, can offer a reminder of our own projections into the space of the painting.
What is the self beyond our reflections of those things which are projected onto us? Bergman’s artworks embody selves which absorb their environment while remaining defiantly distinct and staring back.
Shanna Zentner is a Post-MFA teaching fellow in the Department of Visual Arts (DOVA) at the University of Chicago. This is her first appearance in the New Art Examiner.
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