When talk of building a wall between the United States and Mexico sprang up, artist Rose Frantzen of Maquoketa began thinking about ways to tear down walls between people.
Another portraiture project became her medium.
An eight-month Smithsonian exhibition in 2009 and 2010 gave her a national platform for her “Portrait of Maquoketa” project, which yielded 180 12-inch-by-12-inch oil paintings created between July 2005 to July 2006, depicting people in her Eastern Iowa hometown.
When that exhibition moved to Davenport’s Figge Art Museum in 2012, the portraits were mounted on 34 vertical panels. Her husband, artist/designer Chuck Morris, strategically engineered the panels so that viewers sitting at one end of the portraits could see Frantzen’s 315-square-foot Maquoketa rolling landscape “wall” on the other side. (View it online at oldcityhallgallery.com/page19/page18/page6/index.html)
Her current efforts to tear down walls, titled “In the Face of Illusion,” layers optical illusions over portraits of people marginalized by gender, culture and/or ethnicity. She found some of her models in Arizona during the winter of 2016, and began her initial paintings that the spring.
The exhibition opens Friday (11/24) and continues through Feb. 10 at the Maquoketa Art Experience, with more works on view at Frantzen’s studio in the nearby Old City Hall Gallery. She will discuss the project during an opening reception from 5:30 to 8:30 p.m. Friday at the Maquoketa Art Experience, 124 S. Main St.
“It’s not the safest show I’ve ever made,” she said. “I’m putting a little risk in there. I don’t want to say I’m stirring the pot.”
Instead, the Maquoketa native, 52, aims to spark a dialogue by asking questions about the walls and illusions through which we perceive other people, and ultimately, ourselves.
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“In this contiguous wall, all of these paintings have a narrative question,” she said, denoted through titles such as “The Distortion of Force Used by Some Who Proclaim Faith in the One Who Said ‘The Meek Shall Inherit the Earth’”; “Carrying the Weight of an Occluded Refection”; and “Vaulting a Disproportionate Illusion of a Transparent Wall.”
“The optical illusion is one form of reduction of these people,” she said. “(The question) becomes how we reduce ourselves by a narrative or story put on another person by simple categorizations of identity, and how that could be what we’re asking questions about.”
She hopes to help guide that conversation through her gallery talk.
“To help you see doorways into these conversations about identity and about our adherence to it, our need for it; why we subject ourselves and others to it; what’s the usefulness of it; and what are the limitations of it,” she said. “I’m hoping that the paintings have that feeling there, that asks the questions.”
Her own discovery process takes shape when she places a canvas on her easel and lets the questions flow from her body and soul.
“Putting the questions on the easel starts to teach you while the paintings are being made,” she said.
“I started this question in a reaction. I’m going to build a wall about all the people who are marginalized in this national conversation. That was really the beginning,” she said. “And paint all of them — all of the representations of the marginalized people, and have you try to deny them.
“Can you really deny these people? Because look at the strength of these people by the love of the look of an artist into a human being, and the translation of that through one person. Not through a camera, not through a video, but through another person using the medium of oil paint.”
As with any conversation, it’s a matter of sensory perception, she said, and her perceptions are translated through her art.
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“It is what happens when you paint somebody in a portrait. That is not a mechanical process — you paint them through your body. If the artist has a default toward an experience with this person — that they’re painting a person with dignity or nobility or sensitivity or kindness or love — that will come through in the painting.”
That’s what she strives to convey in all of her portraiture, in this case, viewed through the lens of optical illusions.
“I hope these optical illusions that trick you, even when you know you’re being tricked, they’re still tricking you. They’ll tell you that when we see each other, there are all these same tricks happening in the brain, in our sensory perceptions, in how we see each other, in how we listen to each other — and also how we do it to ourselves, and even how I see myself. My own narrative, what I want to say defines me, and how that limits my complexity.
“That nuanced complexity of what we are is actually the doorway into meeting another person. The fact that I’m not only a woman, I’m a woman loves men, who has brothers, who is born on a planet with half the species being of a different sex. The label is too small for what it means, and we live in those labels or we live in those most ill-defined, narrowly defined identities. Thus begins the argument and the divisions,” she said.
“That’s what I’m hoping these narrative, questioning titles above the paintings will open up. But it’s funny, because a lot of them are just descriptions of the optical illusions. So I’m using what the optical illusion really is, in that title, and the way I put it in the context of that person, all of a sudden, you get a narrative.”
She doesn’t pretend to have the answers, and doesn’t even have fully formed opinions, but is enjoying learning from the process.
With the “Portrait of Maquoketa” project, she opened her studio to whomever would like to stop by and pose for her. On occasion, that meant brushing aside preconceived notions or memories of those people, realizing “the first point of reaction” could be a problem if she didn’t open herself to the larger context. Did the person who annoyed her at the grocery store just get fired or have a child who just got hurt?
Just as she evolved through that project, her evolution continues through “Illusions.”
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“I feel like I’m closer to asking what it is to be an American than when I started, and what it is to be a human being than when I started.”
As of Nov. 7, she had finished 32 paintings, and hopes to have 36 pieces, including a sculpture, on view when the show opens.
Visitors will not only see optical illusions in the paintings, but in the overall setup as they turn from side to side in the gallery.
“I’m not doing anything high-tech or electronic. It’s all old-school,” she said.
And it’s ongoing.
“I’m just beginning to touch this artistically,” she said, adding that visitors may notice some holes because she simply didn’t have access to all the marginalized groups she’d like to portray.
“I’ll be able to fill them after the opening deadline. I’ll keep working on the show,” she said. “I’m not going to stop because the show is hanging. This idea is really interesting to me, and it’s also interesting to me aesthetically. You may even see an evolution inside the show aesthetically, like me trying to learn how to do it — the incorporation and the enmeshing of figures with optical illusions.
“If I was doing this as my sole focus for two or three years, the two-year-out person looking at the person doing this show will say, ‘Wow, you didn’t know anything yet.’ But the me that painted six months ago or 10 months ago is like, ‘Wow, I didn’t know she could do that.’”
l Comments: (319) 368-8508; firstname.lastname@example.org
IF YOU GO
l What: Rose Frantzen: “In the Face of Illusion”
l Where: Maquoketa Art Experience, 124 S. Main St., Maquoketa, with additional work at Old City Hall Gallery, 121 S. Olive St., Maquoketa,
l When: Nov. 24 to Feb. 10
l Admission: Free
l Opening reception: 5:30 to 8:30 p.m. Friday (11/24)
l Information: Oldcityhallgallery.com/illusion or call Charles Morris, (563) 321-0727