Some years ago, a symbolist painter named Gail Potocki asked me to sit for her. I was flattered and promised myself that I would go to bed at a decent hour, wake up early, apply tasteful hints of blush and mascara, arrange my hair in artfully cascading waves, and arrive at her studio on time. Instead, I showed up more than an hour late on less than an hour of sleep, hair tangled, with Baby Jane makeup that I’d slapped on in the car. I was convinced that she wouldn’t notice because, at the time, I thought I was hiding it so well. But when the painting was finished—my face obscured, my body twisted against a black and vaguely war-torn landscape—I knew I wasn’t fooling anyone. The things that were defining my existence—the angst, isolation, and drugs—were right there on the canvas. Despite whatever lengths I’d gone to conceal it, the painter had seen the truth.
There’s something about having your image rendered by another person that’s jarring in a way that seeing yourself in a photograph could never be. Photography—and I know I’ll have my detractors so let’s limit this to portraiture—is a relatively objective medium. Yes, a photograph represents its maker’s particular point of view and can certainly be manipulated into something we’d never otherwise be able to see. But a photograph still incorporates elements of objective reality; things that, insofar as you’re inclined to believe in an ontological realm of objects, exist independently of our ability to perceive them. Painting, on the other hand, is entirely subjective. To have your portrait painted is to be seen as another sees you. And a good painter can give us something far more than a surface representation. A good painter can delve into her subject to mine for metaphysical truths, showing us things that a photograph cannot. For years, I couldn’t bear to look at Gail Potocki’s painting because that image was something I was too ashamed to face. But once that dark instantiation of self was firmly in the past, I came to appreciate the painful beauty she’d captured in that momentary truth.
Rose Frantzen is an artist who moved from New York City back to her small hometown of Maquoketa, Iowa, and opened her doors to any resident who would sit for a portrait. When I heard about her, I immediately wondered what kind of truths she’d been looking for, and what kind, if any, she had found.