A variation of this essay has been published in ACES Magazine.
On view in the Museum Shop of the Islip Art Museum is a collection of panel paintings by Chaltin Pagan. Pagan produces paintings of Barbie dolls, a subject she uses to explore her ideas of the body, the feminine, and the uncanny. Her medium of choice is egg tempera, which emphasizes the presence of the painter while connecting her to the venerated tradition of icon paintings.
Until the late 15th century, egg tempera was the preferred medium for painters, being used for small panel paintings, large-scale frescos, and everything else in between. The fast-drying painting medium consists of colored pigments mixed together with water and egg yolk, acting as the binding agent. Icon paintings are religious in subject matter with the most popular icons being the Virgin Mary and Jesus Christ. Throughout history there have been periods when theologians sought the removal of icons form the church as they believed the objects were becoming the primary focus of devotion as opposed to the stories and figures they represented. This reverence to the image of an individual was deemed equivalent to the worshipping of a false idol. Pagan considers the Barbie doll to be a modern day icon revered by society despite her unrealistic appearance having a negative impact on impressionable pre-teen girls.
Pagan constructs her compositions in the guise of classical icon paintings. Her figures are depicted at three-quarter length, cut from the knee down, and are placed before a plainly painted background. Several of her figures hold objects, which in a classical sense, would be representative of a saint and his or her martyrdom. One such painting is Egg, which depicts a Barbie with long blonde hair before a blue background. She is depicted at half-length with most of her body hidden by a purple table and a large egg, mirroring the proportions of their real world counterparts. The egg may be a reference to the materials used to create the painting, but may also be a reference to the female egg, the female haploid reproductive cell. In this sense, the piece is a reference to the metamorphosis the female body undergoes during pregnancy and childbirth. The Barbie doll stands in as the woman before childbirth, idealized with her long blonde hair, large blue eyes, and unrealistic body before she undergoes the changes necessary for childbearing.
Other paintings make references to the rituals and demands dictated by society that women must adhere to in order to be accepted as beautiful. If a woman hopes to one day find her Ken, she must alter her appearance by removing the natural and adding the unnatural. In these paintings, Barbie presents the objects, again shown in scale to their real world counterparts, in a manner similar to a Christian saint presenting the object of his or her martyrdom, such as St. Sebastian with his arrows or St. Catherine with her wheel.
Razor and Scissors both make references to the styling of hair. Razor, of course, references the routine of shaving legs and underarms, removing the hair that society decrees unattractive but grow naturally on the body. Scissors is additionally playful, reminding the viewer of the times they gave their Barbie dolls a new hairdo. This idea of styling one’s hair is taken a step further in Blonde and Brunette, which depicts a Barbie with blonde hair presenting the bust of a Barbie with brown hair. Here, the artist reference the act of dying one’s hair, a common practice utilized today by those seeking to conceal their age, alter their appearance, or become someone new entirely.
Untitled and Red Lipstick, on the other hand, bring to mind the array of jewelry and cosmetics one can adorn in order to enhance their physical appearance. Lipstick has a longstanding sensual connotation throughout history with many teenage girls seeing it as a rite of passage into womanhood. Together, this collection of paintings exhibit the beautification rituals women go through to be socially accepted as attractive.
Pink and Green and Blue, both titles deriving from their colored backgrounds, display severed Barbie heads, plucked from their bodies, that are carefully arranged in the two compositions. These images bring to mind the viewers’ childhood in which, on purpose or by accident, their Barbie dolls lost their own heads. Red Dress portrays a Barbie in a long red dress presenting her detachable bust, similar to Blonde and Brunette, which looks directly at the viewer with its large blue eyes. Both paintings are modeled from a specific Barbie doll manufactured circa 2010 where the head of the Barbie could be removed with a push of a button and replaced with another.
The final image on display is My Harlequin; a small panel painting that resembles an intimate portrait of a Barbie doll. The figure is turned slightly to the right, looking past the viewers and avoiding their gaze. Her red lips are parted, revealing a bright white strip of paint that stands in for teeth. Her eyes are large with irises that are a splendid mixture of light blue and grey, which is echoed in her eye shadow. Her pupils are, expectedly, unnaturally large and are a dark shade of blue which is complimented by her platinum blonde bangs. She is representative of the classic blonde hair blue-eyed beauties.
Pagan received her MFA in 2012 from the University of Fine Arts in Philadelphia, PA. She has been recognized for her artistic merits, receiving the Holly T. Popper Award and the Theresa Ralston McCabe Connor Award during her undergraduate days at the City College of New York. Her work has been exhibited throughout New York and Pennsylvania.
Exploring the Feminine in Egg Tempera: Works by Chaltin Pagan runs in conjunction with the museum’s main exhibition Faux Sho’ curated by Museum Exhibition Director & Curator Beth Giacummo. Both exhibitions are on display at the Islip Art Museum from October 5 – December 28 with a reception held on Sunday, November 9, from 1 – 4pm. A special exhibition, It’s Getting Hairy, curated by Giacummo and SPARKBOOM™ is on display in the museum’s ballroom from October 1 – November 1 with a special afterhours event held on Saturday, November 1, from 7 – 10pm.