North Dakota Museum of Art

Museum Interior, photo: Jamie Penuel

University of North Dakota

Grand Forks. ND



Susan Fenton: Hand-Colored Photographs

November 13 - December 31, 1999


From 1991 through 1994 Philadelphia artist Susan Fenton lived and taught in Tokyo, Japan. As has often been noted by Western visitors, Japan and its customs seem to be a strange and wonderful mix of compatible contradictions. With "contradiction" in mind, she assembled a series of visual metaphors, based on anonymous portraits she took in her studio, that addresses the quiet strength of the Japanese people, as well as the fetishistic and ritualistic iconography of their culture, both traditional and contemporary.

Fenton explains her use of what appear to be portraits: "Long ago, back in the 70s in graduate school, I began creating little vignettes, scenes with toys, dolls and figures, which I would then paint. Creating these narratives was the most important aspect of this process for me. I moved on to photography, still using toys, and moved on to dolls, then to mannequins, then to people. My photographs represent humanity, but not a particular person." According to the artist, "technically my photographs are black and white silver prints, printed on fiber-based paper, that are brown-toned and then hand-painted with photographic oil pigments. The final color is built from many layers of thin applications using fundamental color theory (warm vs. cool, complementary overtones)." (left: White Gauze Mask, 1995, hand-colored gelatin silver print, 24 x 24 inches)

According to Barbara Walters Altizer in her review of Fenton's 1996 New York exhibition, "this body of work is a masterpiece in the observation and abstract representation of quite opposite Japanese manners. Fenton's work is exquisitely mysterious. Her photo representations are of smooth skinned, flawless, and sublimely androgynous upper bodies whose heads and faces are disguised, concealed and revealed, by masks and veils. Each one is a statement of refined and self-contained internal beauty and strength for which the external reins of the mask is but a metaphor."

She goes on to say, "These are not simply photos of human upper bodies. These are photos of the transcendent and sublime idea animating theatrical figures from beyond the frame, like Rembrandt's illusion of light from behind. Susan Fenton has captured the essence of manners for a people."

The North Dakota Museum of Art is located on the Campus of the University of North Dakota, Grand Forks. Visitors may approach the campus from either the east or west on University Avenue. Admission is free. Hours: Weekdays 9am to 5pm. Saturday and Sunday 1 to 5pm. Closed major holidays. (information as of 11/99)

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