By Annelies Cooper for ArtInfo - see the full review and image gallery HERE.
At first glance, Ellen de Meijer’s “Virtual Love,” 2012, looks like a fairly basic family portrait: a mother and son, posed toward the viewer in their dress clothes. But it’s quickly apparent that something is off — that the woman is touching her son’s shoulder through a rubber glove, that the boy has only briefly looked up from his smart phone, that their wide dark eyes appear glassy and unfocused — none of it egregious but none of it quite right, either. It’s the same feeling evoked by many of the paintings in the Dutch artist’s show “Digital Divide,” on view at UNIX Gallery through March 5 — a subtle unsettling push-pull, recognition at even pace with alienation.
Despite the exhibition’s title, De Meijer explained, this is no mere cautioning to smartphone-happy millennials: “I’m trying to make figures that everybody can identify themselves with, so that nobody can walk away and say, ‘Oh, this is not about me, it’s not about my generation.’ It’s a bit of a war inside my head as well, because on the one hand, it’s universal and timeless, and on the other hand, I want to make it from exactly this period of life, in the digital period of life.”
The result is a series that feels vaguely vintage — figures in classic stances and formal attire, staring out with wide eyes, greying skin against spare backgrounds — but peppered with anachronisms like Google Glass and white iPhone earbuds. “All of the paintings have got something to do with human communication, and the way we’re trying to make ourselves through this communication,” De Meijer said, “to show this image-building through the devices that are available nowadays.” Also worth noting are the rubber gloves, which most of her subjects sport in varying colors — another symbol of detachment, even absolution from the grit of human concerns: “It gives them the opportunity to do what they do, because they don’t get their hands dirty,” the artist explained.
De Meijer began her career as a photographer, but soon enough, as she put it, “paint got into my fingers and into my body and it never got out again” — particularly because of the control it allowed her in precise placement of her spare formal elements. “My paintings, they are a combination of so many small details that you will never see if they’re not pointed out to you, but it makes a total, and the total should give you a feeling,” she said.
Her real challenge, however, is a tenuous balancing act between what she calls the “seen and the unseen” — conveying people’s outward presentation in step with our “under-layers of human smallness, limitation and vulnerability,” she writes in her artist’s statement. “I’m trying to paint you a picture of the things you know when you’re undressed in your bathroom or your bedroom, and you step before your mirror, and you say, ‘My God, what am I doing with my life,’” she said. “The grief you have, the doubts you have about your loves and your not-loves — that, I call the unseen.”
“Then, we have the seen,” she continues. “We have what we want to show, what we need to show. When you step out of your apartment, you’re all dressed up, not only with your clothes but also with your mind. You’re set on going and doing.”
“I’m trying to let you see both — which is a very hard thing to do, mind you, and I don’t always succeed,” she said. “But that’s my aim: to show them both, as a form of confession for everybody. For me, for you, for everybody.”
In “Back Up,” for example, a woman holds a pink baby doll to her stomach, its back punctured with a black speaker — a seemingly childish totem that also carries overtones, when matched with her professional attire, of the modern female dilemma of “having it all,” the white line of her headphones a sort of stilted umbilical cord. Same goes for the young woman in “Linked In,” her foot tangled in her Louis Vuitton bag, headphone wire wrapped around her ring finger in place of a wedding band, her vacant eyes mirrored in the two-pronged wall socket behind her.
Still, De Meijer clarified, she’s no luddite, simply cautious — her work is a subtle, if insistent reminder of just how easy technology’s “image-building” makes it to slide too far into the “seen,” and therewith this eerie self-estrangement. “My concern is that we lose ourselves too much if we’re not conscious enough of what’s happening — if we’re not conscious that human beings don’t have the same evolution as technology,” she said. “It took this technology 30 years to develop, and we are still apes.”