On view in the Museum Shop of the Islip Art Museum is a collection of panel paintings by Chaltin Pagan, an artist living and working in New York City. 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 within the work.
Until the rise in popularity of oil paint in 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, which acts as the binding agent. Artists working in this medium are unable to build up their colors to create the rich shadows found in slow-drying oil paintings. Instead, artists would need to create several shades of one color in order to create a sense of light and shadow. Once a layer of paint dried, the artist would be able to paint the next layer on top of it. In Pagan’s paintings, one is able to see this artistic process of adding layers of paint on top of one another to create accents of color that reveal themselves in the final products. By working in egg tempera, Pagan aligns herself with the revered tradition of Christian icon paintings.
The term ‘icon’ derives from the Greek word eikōn, meaning ‘image.’ Icon paintings are rooted in Eastern Christian traditional but examples can be found from around the world. Icon paintings are generally flat panel paintings depicting a holy figure or object such as the Virgin Mary, Jesus Christ, or the cross. One of the earliest icon paintings is said to be a portrait of the Madonna and Child created by St. Luke, the patron saint the arts, which has led to countless Christian painters throughout history creating a replica of this icon as homage to their patron saint and as proof of their faith. Icons appear as both small devotional works kept in private dwellings, and large-scale altarpieces on display in the city’s Cathedral, the religious center of the city, or in any smaller church. 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 worshiping of a false idol.
Of course, now in the 21st century, the term ‘icon’ has taken on a much broader meaning being used in reference to any instantaneously recognizable image, person, or object regardless of the religion, culture, or time it originated. The Mona Lisa, American flag, Britain’s double-decker bus, and Hello Kitty are all considered icons as just the mere passage of text brings the appropriate recognizable image to the reader’s mind. One does not have to be an expert on the subject to instantly recognize the icon at a passing glance or to have some working knowledge of it. According to Martin Kemp, renowned scholar on Leonardo da Vinci, there are two dimensions in how an image achieves its iconic status: the fame of the subject the image represents, and the memorability of how it looks. Pagan considers the Barbie doll to be a modern day icon revered by society. Since 1959, the Mattel fashion doll has found herself in the home of almost every American. She appears in the Toy Story movies, is the subject of an Andy Warhol painting and Aqua’s 1997 hit Barbie Girl, and has been parodied by The Simpsons via Malibu Stacy. Seeing it’s appearance in a wide variety of mainstream pop culture, it would be foolish to consider the Barbie doll as anything but iconic. Despite its worldwide popularity, the media has harshly criticized the toy for its unrealistic, near unattainable, appearance having a negative impact on impressionable girls, such as the Ukrainian model Valeria Lukyanova and others affected by ‘Barbie Syndrome’ or ‘Barbie Flu’ a phenomenon in which girls emulate the Barbie, trying to attain an impossible standard of beauty. In her work, Pagan takes the modern image of the Barbie and depicts it in the mode of traditional Christian icons, adding an additional meaning to the term icon painting.
Chaltin Pagan, Egg, 202013
Pagan constructs her compositions in the guise of traditional icon paintings. Her figures are depicted at half or three-quarter length, cut from the knee down, and are placed before a plainly painted background. The absence of setting is meant to draw the viewer’s attention to the figures, and objects, depicted. Several of her figures hold objects, which in Christian icon paintings, would be representative of the saint and emblematic of his or her martyrdom. One such painting is Egg, which depicts a Barbie with long blonde hair before a blue background. Completed on a single panel less than one foot in height, the Barbie is portrayed at half-length with the majority of her body hidden by a purple table and a large egg, proportioned to mirror its real world counterpart. Light illuminates the scene from the left, creating a strong shadow on the table cast by the egg. Barbie invites the viewer into the scene with her frontal gaze and smile. Once engaged, the viewer becomes trapped in the continuous current created by the artist. From the face, the viewer’s eyes travel down Barbie’s right arm, making a 90-degree turn at the figure’s elbow. From here, the forearm leads the viewer to the rounded surface of the egg, which curves upward back towards the figure’s face. The egg, presented to the viewer by Barbie, may be a reference to the materials used to create the painting. However a reference to the female haploid reproductive cell, the egg is a more likely symbol of the egg. 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.
Chaltin Pagan, Razor, 2012
Other paintings on display in this exhibition make references to the rituals and demands dictated by society that women must adhere to in order to be accepted as beautiful. It has become apparent to the artist that if a woman hopes to one day find her Ken she must alter her appearance by removing the natural while adding the unnatural. In these paintings Barbie presents objects like a Christian saint presenting the object of his or her martyrdom such as St. Sebastian with his arrows or St. Catherine with her wheel. In addition to Christian martyrs, the manner in which these Barbie dolls are depicted is reminiscent of how a model would pose in a photographer’s studio for a fashion shoot. These figures are stiffly posed, aided by the rigid nature of their plastic material, for the audience just like a model posing before a camera. Although the model is unnaturally beautiful, she is not the intended star of these photo sessions; the real focus would be the object she poses with or the clothing she wears.
Razor and Scissors make references to the removal of hair from one’s body and the styling of hair on one’s head respectively. Razor, obviously, refers to the routine of shaving one’s legs and underarms, removing the hair that society decrees unattractive but grows naturally on the body. This process begins early, during childhood or prepubescence, and continues for the rest of her life unless she is in the small minority of women that does not conform to what is considered basic social norms. In this painting, Barbie stands, cut from the knees down, before a green background, wearing a white diamond-patterned dress. Pagan shortens the right arm of the figure to allow it to hold the razor in a more natural manner. She averts her gaze from the viewer, a favored motif of traditional portraits of women found in the 16th century, a sign of submissiveness or non-confrontation. A strong light hits the scene from the top right, which reflects off the red razor and green background, landing on Barbie’s dress. Of course, the dress or skirt is the article of choice for the Barbie doll as they highlight her finely shaved legs. Rarely is Barbie ever shown in jeans. Scissors presents a Barbie in a pink top tightly tucked into her puffy blue skirt, holding a large-scaled pair of orange safety scissors one would typically find in elementary school classrooms. The piece is additionally playful, reminding the viewer of the times she gave her Barbie dolls a new hairdo. Despite this playful aspect, Barbie appears threatening in the manner she is portrayed. In contrast to her counterpart in Razor, Barbie stares out directly at the viewer with one hand on the scissors’ handle and the other on the blade in an upright confrontational fashion, giving the impression that in a moment’s notice she will lunge forward to cut, or rather decapitate, the viewer.
Chaltin Pagan, Blonde and Brunette, 2012
The idea of styling hair is taken a step further in Blonde and Brunette. Here, the artist reference the act of dying the hair, a common practice utilized today by those seeking to conceal their age, alter their appearance, or become someone new entirely. Common for women, and to a less extent men, the practice of hair coloring can be done professionally in a hair salon, or in the privacy of one’s bathroom. Here, a blonde Barbie sits on a white chair, presenting the bust of a Barbie with brown hair. She wears a pink tube top that is tucked into her yellow skirt, which is supported by a pair of white and black suspenders. She looks directly at the viewer with her smiling blue eyes, inviting her into the scene. Like Scissors, there is something unsettling about how the Barbie smiles at the viewer as she holds the severed head of another in her pencil thin arms. The brunette bust’s vacant expression gives it lifeless quality. Scissors and Blonde and Brunette could form a pair, a kind of before and after moments of a particularly gruesome event. The particular Barbie model used in Blonde and Brunette was produced between 2009 and 2011 with a detachable head feature, which the artist accentuates with a line that runs across the upper torso of the blonde figure. Anyone who purchased this model could easier remove the Barbie’s head by pushing a button on its back and replace it with another that was sold separately much like how someone could buy a home hair dying kit and change their hair color in a couple of hours.
Chaltin Pagan, Untitled, 2011
Pagan pushes the theme of physically beauty further in works like Untitled and Red Lipstick. Untitled bring to mind the variety of jewelry or accessories a woman can decorate herself with, while Red Lipstick is rooted in the application of cosmetics one can adorn in order to enhance their physical appearance. Both depict Barbie dolls at nearly half-length, in a three-quarter portrait style, facing the viewer’s right. In Untitled, Barbie models a large black and white ring on her right hand that she raises to eye level. The palate of the painting is surprising cool with the artist utilizing several shades of blue, black and white that are found in the background, the figure’s dress, eyes, and in its pale plastic skin tones. Red Lipstick finds a Barbie doll in a brown dress, embroidered with flowers, and a matching decorative scarf. She holds a large tube of red lipstick, which has had a longstanding sexual connotation dating back to ancient Egypt. In truth, lipstick has become a symbol of both female sexuality and female independence. In ancient Egypt it was wore primarily by prostitutes, while in the 1920s flappers worn red lipstick to assert their independence. Many teenage girls see wearing lipstick as a rite of passage into womanhood with it opening the door to other cosmetics such as mascara and blush. Paired with the paintings mentioned previously, this collection exhibits the beautification rituals women go through to be socially accepted as attractive.
Chaltin Pagan, Red Lipstick
In Red Dress, Pagan appears to be expressing her opinions on the world of fashion. In the painting stands a Barbie in a long red gown, typical one that would be worn to formal affairs and fancy dinners. The model used is the same one found in Blonde and Brunette. Here, the figure present her detachable blonde bust, which looks out at the viewer with its large blue eyes and knowing smile. The detachable head indicates that it is the gown, not the figure that wears it, that is the true object of desire. Like Red Lipstick, Red Dress has sexual undertones. In a study at the University of Rochester, Andrew J. Elliot and Daniela Niesta experimented into men’s attraction to the color red indicating that the color has a strong connect to carnal passion, lust, and love as established in mythology, folklore, and literature further stating that women working in the red-light distracts often wore red lipstick to indicate sexual availability. In popular films and plays a red dress is often used to represent passion and sexuality as well. It is no surprise that the predominate colors of Valentine’s Day is red and pink, one the color of sexual desire, the other the color of femininity, both indicative of love.
Chaltin Pagan, Red Dress, 2012
As seen in Red Dress and Blonde and Brunette, the artist enjoys severing the heads of her Barbie dolls from their bodies and using them as subjects for her paintings. Pink and Green and Blue, both titled for their colored backgrounds, display severed Barbie heads plucked from their bodies and carefully arranged in the two compositions. These images bring to mind the viewer’s childhood in which, on purpose or by accident, her Barbie dolls lost their own heads. Pink contains two blonde Barbie doll heads placed on the floor of a pink room. The floor meets the wall in the middle of the picture plane in the background, acting as the central axis of the painting in which one of the heads sits on the axis while the other floats just below the line in the center of the panel. Pagan uses black hatching marks to create the shadows cast by the heads and depth in their long hair. In Green and Blue, Pagan shifts the point of view of the painting. The three heads appear placed on a half-blue half-green floor at an angle that would be slightly ahead of the viewer if she were looking down at the scene, as if to discover the heads on accident. If the blue-green background is thought to be representative of the world, with blue symbolizing the ocean and green indicating land, then the severed heads encompass the three types of hair color found naturally in the world: red, blonde, and brunette. It appears, for the artist, no woman is exempt from the demands dictated by society regardless of their culture.
Chaltin Pagan, Green and Blue, 2012
The final image in the exhibition is My Harlequin; a small panel painting that resembles an intimate portrait of a Barbie doll. The figure is cut just below the shoulders and is turned slightly to its left, looking past the viewer. 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 that serve as a muse for many. The piece was created in homage to Pablo Picasso, the popular Cubist artist of the 20th century. A harlequin was a stock character in theatrical plays used for comic relief but the term also refers to the diamond shaped pattern found in the character’s costume. According to the artist, Piscasso’s harlequin, the diamond pattern, was his personal symbol, appearing in many of his painting either prominently or subliminally. Pagan pays homage to Picasso and his harlequin motif by including a decorative diamond pattern in the painting that can be find in Barbie’s dress strap in the bottom left-hand corner of the panel. Pagan considers the Barbie has her harlequin, her muse in which she uses to express her ideas on contemporary issues such as the ones previously discussed.
Chaltin Pagan, My Harlequin, 2013
Pagan received her MFA in painting 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 in 2009 and the Theresa Ralston McCabe Connor Award in 2008 while completely her undergraduate studies 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, which promotes contemporary artists that are exploring methods and materials that highlight illusionism in all forms to fool the viewer’s eye. 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 featuring artists exploring hair as a medium entitled It’s Getting Hairy, has been curated by Giacummo and SPARKBOOMTM and is on display in the museum’s Ballroom Project Space from October 1 – November 1 with a special afterhours event held on Saturday, November 1, from 7 – 10pm.
Jay Schuck, Museum Curatorial & Exhibitions Assistant
 Kemp, Martin, Christ to Coke: How Image Becomes Icon, Oxford: Oxford University Press. 2012. p. 17
 Kemp, Martin, Christ to Coke: How Image Becomes Icon, Oxford: Oxford University Press. 2012. p. 340
 Soldak, Katya, “’Barbie Flu’ Spreading in Ukraine,” Forbes. 17 Oct. 2012. Retrieved 26 Sept. 2014. Web: http://www.forbes.com/sites/katyasoldak/2012/10/17/barbie-flu-spreading-in-ukraine/
 Elliot, Andrew and Daniela Niesta, “Romantic Red: Red Enhances Men’s Attraction to Women.” Journal of Personal and Social Psychology. Vol. 95. No. 5 (2008): 1150 – 1164