Argentina photographer Romina Ressia uses motifs from historic portraiture, celebrity photography, and the untrammeled and often confrontational modes of street photography to create a new form of portraiture distinguished by a special sort of alchemy. Many people will instantly recognize the iconic style.
Ressia is known for a contemporary interpretation of 18th century, Dutch golden age and renaissance portraiture. She depicts splendidly pallid queens holding the most contemporary of consumables, a coke can, a hamburger and popcorn verge on the absurd.
The images have an arresting quality that remains emblazoned on the imagination, fanciful, regal, and at times challenging. Moving through a gallery of Ressia’s work I am reminded of the many almost inconceivably strangely intimate, sometimes brutally honest, and often extraordinarily beautiful portraits in London’s National Portrait Gallery, hall after hall of forgotten or notorious figures, plainness, prettiness, absurdity and the iconoclastic laid out row after row.
In Ressia’s work, the gaze is turned, as some like to phrase it, in the post-modern turn, “outward” a challenge to authority, and namely in this artist’s practice, to the models of feminine beauty, of sameness and difference.
The artist’s astonishing sense of composition, scenery, art direction and concept is neatly paired with this mode of meaningful inquiry and as such, allows me to sit with the absurdity and sense of humor expressed in the series.
Much of Ressia’s work is focused on the artificiality of “beauty” and our perceptions of ourselves as a continually “evolving” species. Historically, if an interesting face is not enough to strike a particularly poignant note or nod to status, archaism is often used to add gravitas to an artwork. This a long standing practice, we can think most easily of the reworking and inclusion of Greco-Roman elements in renaissance portraits as so beautifully discussed in Christopher Wood and Alex Nagel’s book Anachronic Renaissance. Seeking a richness of content, readability and a sense of status and prestige is at the core of such interventions, and this is equally true in contemporary art, although in a different way that is perhaps less narratival.
Ressia’s profoundly contemporary models are paired with anachronistic tropes from northern European renaissance portraiture. This allows for an almost absurd and certainly confrontational meeting of extraordinary ordinariness tempered by a profound sense of intimacy.
For Ressia, the image of a photo is a rich material, an underpinning on which to inscribe, modify and enhance and yet remains even so an encapsulation of a moment in time, a starting point for creative interventions, a challenge she sees as entirely different from the un-carved surface of stone or the blank canvas. Nevertheless, Ressia’s practice remains tied resolutely to the traditions of painting and art history. Sumptuously beautiful and unsettling works the artist stakes emblematic imagery from historic painting, and pairs this with a contemporary sensibility, this molding of intelligent questioning visual dialogue is a new way of working, exemplified in a very different but equally astonishing way in the paintings of Kehinde Wiley.
The series I Know How Beauty Looks responds to the power dynamics of societies’ conceptions of beauty. In this series, and many of her other projects, feminine beauty appears as solemn and somehow irreverent phenomena, a departure from the sugar coated beauty of editorial depictions of womanhood.
The artist notes being overwhelmed by applications during the casting stage, and notes with enthusiasm the fact these people were in fact not models but ordinary women with a special unique beauty, of all ages, with different measurements, weight and heights. The quality they shared was a lack of self-consciousness, pretensions and a feeling of honesty with the world and self.
“I choose each woman namely for their expressive quality, in general I not seek a typically perfect face, but rather beautiful women with very distinct characteristics and a strong sense of vision. It does not matter whether the subjects are professional models or not, nor do I care about their body types. Instead, I look for people who have something different and special to show me.”
Ressia uses archaic language in tandem with profane objects as a way to prompt questions about the dissonance between individual experience and socially inscribed stories, and enter into a dialogue about contemporary life.
RB: While you have taken coursework in photography, art direction and scenery, I understand for the most part you are self-taught and direct almost all of your process. Can you tell me more about your technique, materials, and working methods?
RR: I shoot digital, now I am working with a Hasselblad H5D, but I in the past worked a lot with a Nikon. However, a camera is just a tool, after all you can make art with a plastic camera. Of course the better the camera and lenses are, the better quality for prints you will get but I really do not pay so much attention to the equipment.
Regarding the process and materials, I try to keep the process fairly private, I usually make my austere sets and with the exception of make up and hair, I am involved in every aspect of the process from concept to post-production (styling, production, team coordination and of course photography).
In her exceptional practice, Ressia seeks to draw lines between the continuity of human experience through the ages, asking if indeed people have “changed” with the advent of new technologies, and if indeed our way of measuring value, the principles of exclusion, prejudice, and group identity have “evolved.”
“In a globalized world in constant motion and led by technological speed, I keep asking myself how much have we really changed. Is this progress, evolution or simple mutation?”
SEE MORE WORK @ THE ARTIST’S SITE