Nau mai, haere mai, welcome to eyeCONTACT, a forum built to encourage art reviews and critical discussion about the visual culture of Aotearoa New Zealand. I'm John Hurrell its editor, a New Zealand writer, artist and curator. While Creative New Zealand and other supporters are generously paying me and other contributors to review exhibitions over the following year, all expressed opinions are entirely our own.

Saturday, May 30, 2009

Exposed but hidden faces

Layla Rudneva Mackay: Green with Envy
May 27 – June 20 2009

In contrast to her last exhibition where she made 'portraits' where heads, faces and whole bodies were hidden from view, this new Layla Rudneva-Mackay show uses exposed faces, but still hidden behind make up - white-faced or tinted pancake, foundations and creams. The six photographs here in Starkwhite’s new back gallery allude to the theatre: they are stagey with appropriately coloured backdrops, costumes and props. They tease out the notion of applied facial makeup as rudimentary mask – not for disguise though, but accentuation of mood. An elaboration of a psychological state or - more permanently, a character trait.

The way they attempt to expose, not conceal, hints at the symbolic use of colours like green and yellow. A bit like Shakespeare and his flowers and weeds. One model is masked around eyes and nose bridge only, others are confined to the face, another is face and neck, another still is eyes, nose and cheeks (but not mouth or chin). Five women and one bearded man.

One image of two long haired, white-faced young women in jeans and t-shirts is trite. It is far too ordinary – as if from a card shop. The others though have a strange intensity, a surprising eroticism even. However it is not the colours of the shaped and somewhat impassive ‘faces’ that do that but the contrast with the normal skin of arms, shoulders and neck. It confirms the ideas of McLuhan’s “the medium is the massage” where tactility and partially covered surfaces create spaces more loaded than anything nudity can create.

What is impressive is the care of the artist has taken in her compositional placement. ‘Blue’ refers to Vermeer, uses a hand-held blue mask as well as blue make-up and backdrop, and has very controlled lighting on the model’s neck, hand and arm. ‘Yellow’ features a yellow transparent backdrop with red peeking through from underneath, and strategically exposing a red corner on the bottom left of the photograph so it counterbalances a blue blouse and red skirt.

With this very fine second exhibition at Starkwhite, Layla Rudneva-Mackay continues to surprise. Though not as overtly provocative or nihilistic as her first ‘outdoor’ show, this ‘indoor’ one is more measured and contemplative, and more sensual. Well worth visiting.

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