Annette Bezor: Big Heads - Art Collector

Issue 44, April - June 2008

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Annette Bezor has been experimenting with images of women’s faces, distorting and altering them for more than a decade with the resulting works known as her “big heads”. While she suspects that most people are ready for her to move on from the series she told John McDonald there’s still a long way to go.

Annette Bezor tried to do her bit for race relations in Adelaide by asking women from the Senegalese community to pose for her. She only wanted a head and shoulders, preferably topped by a fabulous turban, but after some consultation the committee of the Senegalese Society declined the offer.

In the long-running series Bezor calls her “big heads”, she plays with conventional ideas of beauty and otherness. She began about 10 years ago with an obsessive interest in Tretchikoff’s famous portrait of a green-faced Chinese girl that became one of the most popular poster-prints of the 1950s. For a couple of decades Tretchikoff’s peculiar image graced the walls of thousands of private homes, including that of Annette Bezor’s auntie. Only years later did the artist start wondering why this picture appealed to so many people at a time when the White Australia Policy was still in force. Indeed, how could a woman with a jade-green face be thought universally beautiful?

For Bezor, whose career constitutes one long artistic investigation into the female condition, Tretchikoff’s Chinese Girl presented a paradox that was worth exploring. She began painting large-scale female heads, initially borrowing from artists such as Tretchikoff and Tamara de Lempicka, who walked a tightrope between popular art and kitsch. As the series developed she switched to living models, including herself.

In all these paintings she reserved the right to make subtle distortions. Faces were stretched or squeezed on the computer before being painted on canvas. Unusual colours or dramatic cropping shifted each image even further from reality. Caucasian faces were given Asian eyes and facial structures.

Despite all these alterations the faces retained their beauty, just like Tretchikoff’s green lady. It is a phenomenon that has induced Bezor to keep experimenting with the big heads, testing how far she can go without destroying the seductiveness of the image. Where do we draw the line, she asks, between the exotic and the familiar? Nobody’s face is perfectly symmetrical, but Bezor is interested in the fact that facial symmetry is one of the qualities we instinctively find attractive in another person. On the other hand – as the German artist, Rosemarie Trockel once demonstrated with a series of digitally manipulated photos – looking at a completely symmetrical face is like looking at a Martian or an android.

It was the search for radically different models that led Bezor to the Senegalese, hoping to collect a few elegant African faces from Australia’s newest wave of immigrants. For the time being that idea is on hold, but she does have some African content. The beautiful girl who modelled for the most recent of the big heads, in paintings such as Mocha Sunset 1 and 2 (2006), and Mirror face – Camelia (2007), is part Tutsi.

Bezor suspects that most people are ready for her to move on from the big heads, but she is still enjoying the series and taking it in different directions. In her latest works the image may be doubled, overlaid with graffiti-like marks, or juxtaposed with a large flower. In one of the strangest, a woman with a Pompadour hairdo is juxtaposed with a lurid tropical sunset borrowed from a Haitian folk painting. “It’s a painting about alienation,” she says, “about being in the wrong place at the wrong time.” Beyond that there is no hidden symbolism. If anything, it is the formal aspects of the work that play an increasingly dominant role.

“To me they’re just like abstracts with eyes,” she says. “I’ll keep working with the same face but it’s never the same image. I’ll play with the colour or the expression. It’s very easy to change the nature of the face by changing the viewing angle, or the tilt of the head. It only requires a flick of the brush to change an attitude. Because they sit in that space between narrative and abstraction they can be read on a lot of different levels. Mirror face – Camelia, for instance, is really about the way we look at ourselves in the mirror. By scribbling over the top it’s saying that we’re de-facing ourselves when we judge ourselves too harshly. Women are always looking in the mirror and saying: “Oh, you’re so ugly!”

One aspect of the big heads that constantly fascinates Bezor is the way they provoke an emotional response in certain people. They have an unsettling dimension because in some ways they are not quite human. “If you saw someone walking down the street looking like that,” she says, “you’d be staring at her for all the wrong reasons.”

Over the past decade Bezor has maintained a strict division between the big heads, which are smooth and impersonal; and the works in her Entanglement series – heavily-layered and autobiographical in inspiration. This year’s exhibition at Harrison Galleries in Sydney will be mostly big heads, but next year, at Nellie Castan’s in Melbourne, she hopes to bring together a collection of the Entanglement paintings.

She claims to get more pleasure out of the latter series, but she limits herself to one new addition to the sequence per year. This may be a safeguard against self-indulgence or an admission that these pictures are a little too close to the bone. Where the big heads have some of the crispness of photography, the Entanglement works are much more painterly. To prepare the ground for one of these pictures Bezor might coat the surface of the canvas with paint mixed with tea or coffee grounds, and crush it into a ball. Next, she lays the canvas on the floor and irons it flat, although it preserves a fine mesh of lines. The idea is to create a surface that mimics human skin, with its wrinkles and blemishes, its glimpse of veins beneath the epidermis.

Bezor will paint a realistic figure onto this faintly crinkled surface, then pare it back with an orbital sander until it has an aged, distressed appearance. It may sound laborious, but this is not the feeling that one takes away from these paintings. They are, in fact, highly erotic. A female figure in Flogging the rocking horse (2005) fellates a purple rubber dildo. In the most recent work of the series – still in progress as I write – a naked woman licks her own shoulder in onanistic ecstasy.

Bezor confesses that the woman is really a self-portrait, and tells me this is typical of the kind of things a woman may do when she is alone. “Anything and everything you can imagine can be done alone,” she says. “It’s not simply done for display.”

The only problem with this erotic fantasia is that the paintings often have an underlying significance that runs quite contrary to first impressions. Bezor says that Flogging the rocking horse is really a painting about futility.

“It may look like an out-there painting,” she says, “but it’s about going nowhere, about the futility displayed by this woman in the act of sucking a piece of purple rubber. When somebody looks at the picture they immediately think she’s having a good time, but if you give it a moment’s thought you realize there’s no pleasure in that. There’s nobody interacting with her.

“Because all these paintings are incredibly personal, it refers to a time when I felt like I was flogging a dead horse. It’s really about self-reflection and how it can eat your brain if you’re too self-absorbed – which is what happens to a painter, or anybody, who spends hours and hours alone.

“On a broader level,” she continues, “the paintings are about all the things you’ve got entangled with that are out of your control. They’re about all the things you can’t stand, and want to get rid of. Painting is a way of reasserting control, but what’s most interesting for me is that I never know where these pictures will end up. To a certain extent the canvas dictates where I go next, and then other things happen. The process has a freedom about it that I really like. It’s fun and emotional all at the same time.”

This alternation between extremes of control and freedom is one of the keynotes of Bezor’s work. She will paint figures with the most exacting realism, then multiply layers of imagery until the canvas is crowded with free associations. Although the big heads testify to a great deal of restraint and discipline, she is gradually starting to complicate these pictures in ways that bring them closer to her earlier works, and ultimately, to the Entanglement series. Perhaps the closest approach to a synthesis comes in a new series of laser prints that combine the big heads with layers of borrowed imagery.

Bezor has begun to work in opposition to her own technical prowess by painting a picture quite precisely, spraying it with turps, and then laying a cloth over the surface. When she removes the cloth a large part of the image comes with it, leaving a ghostly imprint through which earlier layers of the painting may be glimpsed. “It’s scary,” she says, “but wonderfully scary.”

On the strength of these paintings, some people might feel inclined to describe Bezor in the same terms. Her self-assessment is more restrained. “I’m reclusive and secretive,” she says, “and I like things to be a little bit mysterious.”

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