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Life in plastic…it’s fantastic?

Janet Werner’s saccharine sweet portraits confront us with modern takes on the feminine “ideal”

Artificiality: it’s such a major theme in modern art that the concept itself seems, well, artificial. Still, we are inexplicably drawn to it when assessing our post-modern position in art. Commodification and artificiality have been the ideological centerpieces and major creative forces driving artistic practice for a long time. But at this point, what more can be said?

According to Jeanie Riddle, creative director of Parisian Laundry, plenty.

Artificiality will always have its place in modern art. In fact, it is the central issue that informs the creative decisions of Parisian Laundry, a striking gallery in St. Henri.

“We live in all things plastic,” she asserts, and we need to embrace it.

Janet Werner’s newest show fits this criteria perfectly: the materiality of the saccharine sweet portraits featured in “Too Much Happiness” force us to face the reality of their artificial construction.

Werner confronts the viewer with the idealized female of the 21st century: the magazine girl. The magazine, as an artistic forum, defines and perpetuates the new “ideal” female: beautiful, inexorably thin, vacant, with not a hair out of place. Yet below this plastic exterior lurk larger implications for contemporary society. Though the idealized female has been a centerpiece of art history for centuries in one form or another, Werner tackles the theme from a distinctly modern perspective.

This is the point for Riddle: what defines art today are new, novel combinations of old themes and practices.

In magazines, woman has transcended her classical place as idealized form on canvas and become a part of everyday life. What more obvious place of her continued existence in modernity than the magazine? Through her contemporary paintings, Werner reclaims the model-as-modern-Venus’s place on canvas once more.

The classical nature of Werner’s medium – large-scale oil portraiture – alludes to what was once considered a category of “high” art in which the female was central. Yet Werner’s paintings never lose their “pop” quality; their essence is sugary kitsch. The subjects could have sprung from the pages of today’s Vogue; even their impassive stares are reminiscent of the blank-faced models gracing the magazine’s glossy pages.

As the works are not reflections of real life, but of the magazine’s construction of reality, Werner’s art takes on the artificiality of the idealized female form in a new way. The self-referential nature of the portraits – their play between painting and magazine as separate artistic media – complicates the distinction between the two. But what seals the deal is the way Werner every so often inserts these model girls into ever more campy natural landscapes. These fake, kitschy scenes are so blatantly disconnected from the girls themselves – though they both reside in the world of the unnatural – that they only serve to further reinforce our unease with the world of the idealized forms that face us.

Yet if the artistic endeavor is to openly evaluate, and perhaps even subvert, the fashion model ideal, it falls short in the end. Though Werner questions the constructed nature of these girls by multiplying the codes of artificiality that mark them, she provides no alternatives. What’s more, by pushing the boundaries of kitsch so strongly in the scenic backgrounds, she seems to step into comical exaggeration rather than critical inquiry.

Still, these women can’t help but persist as an ideal. In the end, the exhibit feels more like a musing on the exaggeration of kitsch through the idealized female form, rather than a true critique of our conceptions of her elevated place in contemporary culture.

“Too Much Happiness” is running at Parisian Laundry (3550 St. Antoine O.) until April 19.