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Emmanuel Gallery exhibit explores memory through portraiture

Puma creates thoughtful portraits of Snapchats.
Photo: John Mazzetta · The Sentry

Memory, Technology, and The New Age Portrait 

Modern communication seems to have digitalized even deeper through quarantine, exacerbating the culture of online identity. In a time where no one was supposed to really go anywhere, technology moved in place, and whether it was used for connection—like staying in touch with at-risk grandparents—or simply shaping perceptions on a virtual platform, technology has dug its roots deeper into the foundation of social interaction through this pandemic. Still, there is a major distinction between technology as an outlet for halted in-person contact and technology as an outlet for online identity. Urgent Importance explores this idea juxtaposing the increasingly fast-paced and transitory forms of digital communication with the slow and steady, palpable hand of portrait paintings. The series displays the many exchanged faces of Snapchat, Instagram, and Facetime as a new paradigm in portraiture. 

Julie Puma grew up for 14 years in England, spending her summers in her native home of Brookyln. Her mother gifted her with a set of oil paints at the age of five; she passed away from breast cancer a year later. Although Julie didn’t hold an interest for painting through high school, by the time she graduated at Western Illinois State University, the fire was rekindled and she enrolled in The Art Institute of Chicago, gaining her Masters in Art Therapy. Moving to Colorado years down the line to take care of her sister who was also battling cancer, Julie met her husband and started a family. Her sister also succumbed to breast cancer, and this has charged her artistic interest with time and impermanency.

“Time is related to mortality,” she said, “and because of my history of so much loss so young, I think I’ve always been thinking about my own mortality and relationship to how time is moving.” And that means traveling backwards to the exploration of memory as well. 

In the small upstairs of the Emmanuel Gallery, Julie displayed a sub-set of multimedia pieces along with an accompanying original poem, collectively titled The Backwards and Forwards of Time

“I started doing these pieces as a way to kind of… find some resolution about [memory], and then also, I was thinking a lot about time and how we often think of time as being so linear but really it’s not—it goes backwards and forwards, so I wrote that poem in conjunction with this body of work,” she explained. On the shelves were a series of hand-sized frames, and in them, old laminated photographs with light glazes of oil paint, fingernail polish, and white-out to adjust its composition, blurring out different details and faces of each photo. They are “little fragments—part of my history,” she says. She explores memory as the foggy and fleeting storage space that it is. Having hardly any memory of her mother, these pieces are the exploration of that fugitive fragmentation.

Technology redefines the idea of memory. Its physical details can be captured intimately and indefinitely, but the sentiment remains associative. Julie first began the main series of portraits after seeing how her teenage daughter’s communication was almost entirely dominated by imagery in social media platforms rather than words. “I just really love to paint portraits, and at the same time I was thinking—I was so fascinated with how my daughter was communicating—‘cause she was in high school when I started this series, and she would communicate just strictly with pictures,” Puma explained.

One particularly gripping portrait of her daughter— which made it into round four of The Smithsonian National Portrait competition—revealed her taking a selfie in the car, the seatbelt hugging underneath her chin with the digital sketch “I (heart) Mom” across her face. Previously, Puma had focused on this relationship with portraits of her and her daughter with a series titled, The Immortal Jellyfish, after a species of jellyfish that ages backwards and re-pods. While pictures capture love, they can also capture attention.

This reflects the complicated aforementioned issue—the digitalization of self-importance. In her intro panel statement, Puma cited Richard H. Saunders’ statement from his lecture, “Making Sense of Our Selfie Nation,” in which he spoke to the increased secularization of many cultures and how that has latched on to technology.

“…[T]oday’s focus on curating our online profile through shared selfies and other electronic means is how we in part fill our secularized void. We craft our identity through fitness, regimens, dieting, cosmetic surgery, travel, fashion, and the accumulation of material objects, all of which—like the selfie itself—contribute to our need for self-esteem and relieve any self-doubt about having a meaningful place in society.”

The speed at which people are communicating is also alarming. Within a society that has been so fast-paced, social media as a means for expression can feed into a dangerously depleting attention span within users and consumers. Julie’s portraits, which are intimately crafted with pain-staking hours of labor, serve to slow that process down and reflect on the millions of portraits flying around every day.  

Technology can pose a uniquely beneficial opportunity, especially for a year like 2020. For months, the way to show togetherness has been by being apart. Technology was the main vehicle for people to stay in touch, and that also meant displaying the front lines of the virus’s impact. Healthcare workers have been the soldiers of a new war, and Julie saw the need for developing her portrait series into a feature of those faces. Among the two featured workers are a man and a woman. Within Puma’s brushstrokes is the candid fear, bravery, and exhaustion of what they’re working through. 

Contrastingly to the time it takes to mold a “Snapchat masterpiece,” Julie has been exhausted herself by the many hours spent on the series. 

“I don’t often think about my work while I’m working, I tend to be more reflecting afterwards because I am so engrossed.” While doing her residency during the past summer, she recalled one of her mentor’s words: “‘When you’re working, you’re so connected to the work, but then as soon as you’re done, you’re shut out,’ and that’s kind of how I feel about this work. When they were done hanging [the pieces], I sort of felt like it wasn’t even my work… I don’t want them back,” she laughed. 

Puma feels eager to move into the next phase, the next painting, but she is a full professor and faculty member at Rocky Mountain College of Art and Design and has been focused on programming the current exhibition. She plans to move into featuring more healthcare workers through this crisis as a way to immortalize their service.

This is a selection from the Sept. 16 issue. To view the full issue, visit:https://online.flippingbook.com/view/866078/

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