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#BaroqueTechStyle: Portraits by Lisa Ficarelli-Halpern

#BaroqueTechStyle: Portraits by Lisa Ficarelli-Halpern
May 9–June 29, 2014
Curated by Mary Birmingham

Lisa Ficarelli-Halpern draws inspiration and elements from art history as well as popular culture, blending the traditional with the contemporary. For several years the artist has focused on a body of work she has humorously titled Vanitas Contemporarius. These seemingly conventional still lifes and portraits incorporate unexpected or even anachronistic objects. The large-scale portraits in this exhibition present models dressed in contemporary clothing and wearing elaborate formal wigs and hairpieces popular with fashionable 18th-century characters. Juxtaposed against patterned backgrounds inspired by Baroque textiles, the sitters use a variety of personal electronics—mobile phones, tablet computers, iPods, and GPS devices. These figures exist in a world that intermingles old and new, traditional, and trendy. Through their embrace of technology, they are “connected,” yet they appear isolated in their highly stylized and artificial environments.

Ficarelli-Halpern’s work draws an interesting parallel between the worlds of fashion and technology; both are largely dependent on change and keeping ahead of the latest trends. In fashion and technology the “next big thing” is inevitably eclipsed by the next “next big thing.” The certainty of obsolescence in material and popular culture might be considered a twenty-first-century equivalent of traditional vanitas—an updated reminder of the vanity and fleeting nature of earthly goods and pleasures.

Painting of Der Garminkavalier

Der Garminkavalier, 2013,
oil on canvas, 60 x 48 inches

Painting of Lady with Blue Tooth

Lady with Blue Tooth, 2013,
oil on canvas, 60 x 48 inches

Paying special attention to trends in fashion and technology, Ficarelli-Halpern meticulously chooses her sitters’ accessories to reflect their individual personalities as well as popular culture. The man in Nouveau Richelieu wears a status-plaid shirt and sports a diamond Rolex-type watch; he is absorbed with his iPad and an iPod Nano hangs around his neck like a talisman. The young man using a GPS device in Der Garminkavalier poses with his Harley motorcycle, and the girl in Nikki Mirage wears a tee-shirt reflecting another pop culture icon—Marilyn Monroe. Nikki’s pink wig, jeweled sunglasses, crystal-studded cell phone case, hair ornament, and earrings reveal her devotion to glitz. Her little dog may be the ultimate fashion accessory. In #SelfPortraitWithTrappings the artist, who admits to being “in love with fashion,” swathes herself in a tangle of pearls, providing an edgy contrast to her regal pose.

Nikki Mirage, 2014,
oil on canvas, 60 x 48 inches

Self Portrait with Trappings

Self Portrait with Trappings, 2014,
oil on canvas, 60 x 48 inches

In addition to Dutch still life painting, the artist acknowledges a wide array of influences that have helped shape her work: Renaissance portraiture with its profile and three-quarter views and inclusion of small objects or accessories that help identify the sitters; the rich decorative aesthetic of the Baroque and Rococo periods; the elegant and aristocratic portraits of British artist Thomas Gainsborough.

Painting Nouveau Richelieu

Nouveau Richelieu, 2012,
oil on canvas, 60 x 48 inches

Painting Sir iSaac

Sir iSaac, 2013,
oil on canvas, 60 x 48 inches

The observant viewer will find similar little surprises in Ficarelli-Halpern’s work. She incorporates sly references to luxury brands and technology in her backgrounds, imagery, and titles. A closer look at the damask-inspired backdrops reveals corporate logos and designs embedded in the patterns. The birds, apples, and famous initials suggest brands that are familiar to contemporary consumers. Her use of the apple motif in Sir iSaac is particularly nuanced. The apple, a favorite element in traditional still life painting is also the corporate symbol of Apple, Inc. The portrait’s title is not only a nod to the ubiquitous branding of Apple products, but it also suggests Sir Isaac Newton, the great 17th-century physicist whose work on gravity is associated with the apple. Sir iSaac wears a Hawaiian-type shirt, but Ficarelli-Halpern transforms the imagery from the conventional tropical flower or palm tree patterns to a tulip motif—another reference to the flower favored by Dutch Baroque still-life painters. Stylized apples, tulips, and lower-case “i”s form a background pattern that solidifies and links all of these connections.

Detail Image of Wallpaper

Detail of La Tech Epoch, 2014,
wallpaper printed on vinyl

To complement her portraits, the artist created a custom wallpaper design based on traditional toile de Jouy—a printed fabric originating in France in the 1760s that illustrated pastoral scenes of the French countryside. Ficarelli-Halpern’s version, La Tech Epoch, comprises repeating motifs inspired by the work of Jean-Honoré Fragonard, a French painter of the Rococo period best known for his exuberant and even playful representations of erotic love. Featuring young lovers and mischievous cherubs who use mobile phones and tablet computers, this is toile with a decidedly contemporary twist.

The title of the exhibition, #BaroqueTechStyle, is a clever blend of tradition and technology—a Twitter hashtag that not only describes the show’s content in a very contemporary way but is also a homophone for “Baroque textile.” With its melding of cutting edge and conventional, Ficarelli-Halpern’s work suggests the past in a way that is totally of the moment.  The works in #BaroqueTechStyle are undoubtedly worthy of trending topic status.

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