25.05.06 — 26.06.06 ‘Replicas’, Nada Serafimovski

Walking into a room of paintings by Nada Serafimovski is reminiscent of standing in a gallery full of distorting mirrors. The images reflected back are both seductive and grotesque: over-sized portraits with unnatural proportions, disembodied faces floating in space, grinning or glaring out from beneath the surface of the image.

The artist paints onto the reverse side of sheets of glass using a mixture of pig fat and pigment. The mixture stubbornly refuses to dry, and glistens like ointment smeared over broken skin. Viewed from the front, they call to mind the work of Marlene Dumas. Each image is isolated and confrontational, constructed using a limited pallet of flesh colours and suggestive, painterly marks describing well-known faces sourced from photographs in magazines.

Viewed from the back, the paintings seem closer to the work of Frank Auerbach or Leon Kossoff. Thick layers of lard are dripped onto the surface of the glass, creating a sculptural landscape in which grooves and ridges caused by the artist’s thumbprints can still be seen. In some ways, the portraits stand more comfortably within the tradition of figurative sculpture than painting. It is intended that each work should be viewed from both sides, thereby avoiding the traditional two-dimensionality of painting as a medium, and allowing each image to be affected by external factors such as the changing nature of daylight, revealing the different degrees of transparency in the pigment and lard.

The artist’s medium befits her subject. Each portrait depicts a celebrity who has altered their physical appearance through multiple plastic surgeries. Serafimovski is the daughter of a plastic surgeon and it is as if she has inherited her father’s craft, yet feels deeply ambivalent towards it. Just as the surgeon removes excess quantities of fat from one part of the body to apply elsewhere, changing the shape of the individual to conform to notions of idealized beauty, so the artist uses her hands to mould and shift fat, constructing cheek bones and lips in a manner which emulates the process of plastic surgery.

Like Classical sculpture, each piece of work is concerned with representing notions of the ideal form. In doing so, they depart from the ultra-realism that governs work by other contemporary sculptors such as Ron Mueck or Duane Hanson, which seem to want to refute such idealism. Serafimovski does not affirm contemporary notions of the ideal, but rather suggests that the modified image is so prevalent that it has become reality.

Serafimovski began making the work included in Replicas after graduating from the Royal College of Art in 2003. At the time she was working as an art director for David Jones Associates and developing campaigns for clients including Prada. She became aware of the extent to which digital illustration plays a part in developing collective notions of beauty: individual models were airbrushed and re-touched, and body parts were eliminated, enlarged or emphasized. The ubiquity of such images means that they are received as normal representations of the human figure, and the digitally manipulated form is accepted as reality. As such, Serafimovski’s work is the classical portraiture of tomorrow.

She does not judge her subjects, but remains fascinated by the psychological and physical worlds that they inhabit. Her portraits question the extent to which identity can be constructed, and examine the point at which the boundaries between simulation and reality implode. They refer to a manufacturing process with multiple layers of reproduction in which surgeon, photographer, celebrity journalist and painter conspire together to create an icon, and to a world in which our physical bodies, as well as our identities, can be malleable, plastic and constructed.

In this world of temporary identities and embodied hyper-reality, that which is real begins to deteriorate and ultimately ceases to exist. The desire for beauty and preservation, and human attempts to defy the onset of gravity and old age, actually hasten the eradication of that which they seek to perpetuate.

Nada Serafimovski was born in Sarajevo in 1972 and now lives and works in London.