Ariana Page Russell explores the topography of her own face in "Save Face" at Platform Gallery.
Seven large portraits of Ariana Page Russell confront you from one wall of the gallery; they read as seven distinct personalities. From the shoulders up, they show her adorned in various shades of red, pink and beige. The tones are layered onto her skin via temporary tattoos, or created by their removal.
In her artist statement, Russell notes that the Chinese language has 98 different concepts of “face,” believing it is a mask with incarnate spirit, and that people save or lose that mask to function in society. Now that the artist, who earned her master of fine art in photography at the University of Washington, is based in New York City, she encounters many more of these masks each day.
Russell’s own face is the subject of her new show. Her skin is so hypersensitive — a condition called dermatographia — that if her skin is scratched or brushed, hives are raised within minutes because of the amount of histamine her system releases.
In previous work, she’s drawn on her legs with a knitting needle, creating raised script. In “Dressing,” published by Platform’s Decode Books, she wears patterns made from tattoos illustrating her own shades of sensitivity.
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The patterns are actually multicolored, temporary tattoos — essentially photographs of her skin. After taking the pictures, she scans the images, and sometimes manipulates them to produce deeper colors. Then, they’re printed on special paper, which is applied back onto her skin in layers or patterns.
Those in her “Save Face” images “Rant” and “Radiate” bring to mind tribal decorations and armor. The two portraits of “Seethe” bring so many associations. In the first, Russell wears dark tattoos from the bridge of her nose down to her neck. They have a fetishistic quality, resembling latex and evoking the blood and bandage strips of plastic surgery.
The second image shows her peeling off the berry-colored strip: now it’s an unmenacing fruit roll-up or a wetsuit, with the skin beneath flushing from the friction of removal. They’d be magical companions to German photographer Wolfgang Tillmans’s “Blushes” series, where similar states of being were made through darkroom manipulations of light and color.
On the facing wall is a set of small vintage mirrors. Most are tattooed with a mini-image of Russell. One is blank, but having been on her skin before the mirror, it carries traces of skin cells and hair.
“When I first discovered what happens when you put a tattoo on a mirror, I was so excited,” says Russell, who likens it to a daguerreotype.
In those silvery, mirrorlike images from the early days of photography, people’s expressions often ranged from pensive to dreadful. Here, Russell’s is calm, but the 3-D effect of the tattoo-to-mirror transfer does give her four spooky eyes.
As a deft visual manipulator, she’s certainly one to watch.
Rachel Shimp: firstname.lastname@example.org