Looking at Séraphine Pick’s eerie, seductive paintings it’s obvious she has an overwhelming love of the actual process of painting as well as a unique and unstoppable imagination. A veritable magpie, scavenging images from here there and everywhere, Pick creates otherworldly spaces peopled by strange characters caught in moments of metamorphosis or revelation, and like characters from Greek mythology, they morph and merge with nature to become half-human, half plant or animal.
These surreal portraits explore hidden aspects of the psyche through the symbolic language of objects, referencing pop culture, especially advertising and magazine imagery, as well as art history. In her quick, expressive brushstrokes you can see Goya; in the symbolic use of objects to reflect personality there are hints of Frida Kahlo; in the decorative foliage and flowers you recognise the naïve, playful vision of Parisian painter Henri Rousseau.
Whether she’s making a quick, spontaneous portrait of human or animal, or building a complex costume drama with many different characters, the jarring shifts in scale and sense of psychological frisson exert an irresistible pull. Interestingly, the cameos of animals that often appear within the larger portraits seem to somehow flesh out the inner lives of the humans, adding to the richness of associations these works inevitably spark.
Although first and foremost she’s a portraitist, her paintings also have strong elements of still life and landscape—both of which suggest narratives and reflect the circumstances and psychology the characters. Like the 17th-century Dutch painters, Jan van Eyck and Jan Vermeer, Pick often invests lavish detail in the props, costumes and jewellery of her characters who, though they appear to share the same pictorial space, are strangely disembodied and distant from each other. However, as if willing us to engage, they almost always make eye contact with the viewer.
Her main subject is women, when the blokes do appear they’re vague and sketchy, and her paintings read like extended essays or narratives about different feminine archetypes—the pouting femme fatale, the bored housewife, the innocent young girl.
The sensuality and eroticism of these paintings comes not only from their subject matter but also from Pick’s lush handling of paint and colour. Yet despite their surface appeal they never tip over into the sentimental or the saccharine; there’s always a barb, a contradiction that pulls you up sharp and forces you to revise your first impression.
The devil is often in the detail—the skin-diving woman in the skimpy bikini has a knife strapped to her thigh, the sexual pout of the dark-haired beauty is echoed by the deep red interiors of the shells that float around her and bead the top of her dress, the glamorous blonde woman in the black underwear and lavish jewellery has a dead bird at her feet. She is frowning, holding one silver stiletto in her hand and despite her provocative state of undress she has an uncertain, vulnerable look on her face. Her pose is stiff and uncomfortable and she seems unable or unwilling to inhabit the femme fatale role. Behind her another woman rides a galloping horse like a kick-ass cowgirl from a country and western song. Though these women share the same picture space, they couldn’t be more different—one is uncertain and tentative, though she’s the main character in the painting, the other much smaller figure appears to be enjoying herself immensely, going hell for leather. Is the woman on the horse the blonde woman’s alter ego, representing power and agency, potential and possibility? It’s a wonderful portrait of the contradictions embedded in cultural and societal notions of femininity.
Pick insists there are no definitive narratives in her paintings and it would certainly be a mistake to read them as autobiographical. “I don’t really use fixed narratives in my paintings; they’re often open-ended images that the viewer brings their own stories to.”
She enjoys mixing the mundane and the fantastic, allowing her subconscious to meander and combine images in unexpected ways. Her interest in humanity and psychology as subject matter deepened in 1999 when she was the Frances Hodgkins resident in Dunedin.
“Dunedin has a beautiful melancholy about it; it’s a small community and an interesting environment to live in. It was then I started putting a lot more imagery in the work and making it more surreal; the characters began to develop from there.”
“People tell me stories about their lives and I’m really interested in the power of images and how they can evoke people’s own memories; I like that interaction you can have with paintings.”
In the more monochromatic painting, Careworn, a 1950s housewife is soberly dressed and blindfolded, contained in a claustrophobic interior that may hint at her dissatisfaction with the constraints of her role. In the background are a naked couple, strangely at odds with the main character’s sober grey dress. The cloth in her hands could be a tea towel or an oven cloth and one wonders if she can hear the sound of the record player behind her.
This is one of a series of paintings of blindfolded characters that Pick sourced from photographs of 18th and 19th-century psychological experiments. In these works blindfolded figures interact with their environments through touch and perhaps sound; the objects that surround them could be physical manifestations of their thoughts, allowing the viewer to literally see what these characters are thinking. These recent works seem to carry the painterly tradition of using symbolic objects to reflect the subject’s inner life a step further.
The mystery at the heart of these paintings is what keeps us coming back to look again and again as we meet the gaze of these characters and try to understand their thoughts and desires.
When Art News spoke to her she was preparing for her upcoming exhibition at Hamish McKay Gallery in Wellington, working on ten paintings at the same time in the dusty cluttered warehouse with a sea view of Lyall Bay, which she shares with six artists.
“Working on so many at once is complicated but practical because the paint takes a while to dry. They feed off each other and they all become a show together.”
Working with oil on canvas, she builds up each painting image by image, adding and subtracting elements as she goes; it’s not unusual for her to paint over and obliterate areas she has laboured over for many months to arrive at a composition she’s happy with. Thus in a sense the paintings made for a single show grow organically, each influencing the other, and a group of them eventually becomes one populous painting of many parts.
The daughter of two artists who met in Christchurch while they were studying at Ilam in the 1960s, Pick has drawn avidly and photographed her daily surroundings since she was a child. Her mother encouraged her to develop her imagination and her art teacher father, who has a huge enthusiasm for Goya, taught her art history.
“Drawing is really important because I’m working with images and drawing is a way to construct them.
I do drawings but they are not necessarily related directly to the paintings. Photography is quite important because a lot of my images are found images from magazines; I just come across things because I’m always looking for images.”
“I like mixing quite disparate images and styles; I seem to enjoy the complexity of that but I have another series of work where I have singled out one image and painted it directly from a photograph or drawing. So I have these two strands of work, one of which is more complex and chaotic, whereas the others are more real space.”
Somewhat of a gypsy, Pick has lived in all four main centres, travelling to Christchurch to go to art school and staying there for 11 years, to Wellington for the Rita Angus residency, to Auckland to teach at Elam School of Fine Arts and then to Dunedin for the Frances Hodgkins residency. She has been in Wellington for the last two years and feels settled there at the moment.
This year she hit the jackpot, winning the $20,000 Supreme Award in the Norsewear Art Award for her moody, dark painting, Phantom Limb, 2007. Chair of the judging panel, Sydney art dealer Martin Browne, described her as “an artist working at the peak of her profession today”. Though this is undeniably true, her work continues to head off in unexpected directions, transforming itself with each new exhibition—much like the bittersweet characters that spring lightly from her imagination.
Seraphine Pick is represented by Brooke Gifford, Hamish McKay Gallery and Michael Lett. Her solo exhibition at Hamish McKay Gallery, Wellington, opens on 6 November.