A very particular culture and aesthetic surrounds the figure of the young woman or teenage girl that, nowadays, is both created by and viewed through the framework of social media. Michelle Rawlings, an artist born and based in Dallas, brings this subject matter into the gallery space in the same fashion. Her practice, often comprising small-scale paintings, conveys a dual preoccupation with the internet; her working process involves using found imagery, from online and print media, to create work that is then curated in series, to appear visually similar to a mood-board or Instagram feed.
Artists often use found images as their source material, a key example being Marlene Dumas’ haunting portraits based on images taken from newspaper and magazine reportage, painted in a very specific colour palette and style. While Rawlings also draws upon a variety of media to find images to work from, she doesn’t seek to appropriate them in a distinctive style or render them ‘painterly’ through her process. On the contrary, she attempts to imitate rather than alter them; as a result, her work can initially strike the viewer as underwhelming and tentative. However, through this deliberately undemonstrative handling, Rawlings’ practice delicately explores the complex ideas of femininity and vulnerability that surround the process of making and viewing images.
At odds with her paintings’ self-conscious qualities, Rawlings often uses bold, block colours and patterns that, combined with the subject of femininity, are reminiscent of Pop artist Pauline Boty’s paintings of women from the 1960s. In fact, the internet is now a huge source of pop culture and so Rawlings’ practice seems to embody the same spirit of the Pop Art movement, updated in terms of subject matter, for a contemporary audience. As well as using very recognizable computer-generated imagery, such as a clip-art rose, she also paints from digital glitches and damaged graphic cards. These provide instant, ready-made abstract compositions; their geometric shapes and rainbow palette again aesthetically reference the 60s in the form of Bridget Riley‘s colourful Op Art canvases or, more recently, Gerhard Richter’s painstakingly uniform ‘colour swatch’ paintings.
Rawlings’ other stated interests in art history and education are seen very much through the female gaze. Her 2012 exhibition ‘Empathicalsim’ at Oliver Francis Gallery included her copy of Gustave Courbet’s famous painting ‘L’Origine du Monde’ and her own high school photograph, juxtaposing the artist’s personal, autobiographical history and the generalized figure of a woman in art history. Her most recent exhibition at AND NOW, in Dallas last year, also created a sense of narrative through its accumulation of seemingly random and disconnected imagery.
A collage installed across the gallery walls—including paintings, photographs, stickers, ribbons, pages from magazines and drawings directly on the walls—formed a vast psychological map. This display of a visual exterior to the more private, interior world of a teenage girl or young woman is a sensibility shared with film director Sofia Coppola’s mise-en-scène from films such as ‘The Virgin Suicides’ and Petra Collins’ intimate photographs that capture female spaces; although working in different mediums, their tones of generosity, care and ephemerality are shared by and vital to Rawlings’ practice.