For those who have followed the work of Anna Von Mertens in recent years, her new solo exhibition at Sara Meltzer Gallery will no doubt be a surprise. Since 2000, Von Mertens has translated scientific data such as star constellations, water currents and nuclear energy into stitch patterns and dyed fabrics. In her new body of work, she abandons the reliance on facts for a more abstract and subjective reading of history.
The series Portraits evolved in response to Walter Benjamin’s notion of the aura in the age of mechanical reproduction. In his seminal essay on the matter, he describes the sense of awe one feels in the presence of a distinct work of art (and how it is overwritten by “new” mediums like film and photography). In these works, Von Mertens confuses Benjamin’s concept by referencing the aura at the basis of the artwork, rather than that emitted by it. She does so by deciphering the aura of iconic portraits such as Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa, Velázquez’s Philip IV, and Van Gogh’s self portrait, through historical research and personal interpretation of the relationship between painter and sitter. In shifting the focus from the narrative of the painting to its subject, she addresses the myth that surrounds these seminal works and thus restores their original intent as unique portraits of individuals.
Von Mertens determines the aura of her subjects by studying their personalities and the paintings’ context, and then dyes it onto fabric of the same dimensions as the original painting. She later stitches the subjects’ chakra pattern (i.e. energy whorls) in accordance with their pose in the painting. In observing these works, we sense we are let in on a secret, as the vivid colors often contrast the dreary original. A case in point is Von Merten’s interpretation of the monochromatic portrait of Mona Lisa; while the original’s coloring is fairly lackluster, the aura portrait is comprised of various blue tones that encircle a vibrant spot of dark orange. Traditionally, blue points to a calm personality, while red denotes power and confidence. Not surprisingly, Frida Kahlo’s Aura portrait is dominated by tones of yellow, the indication of energy and creativity. Pope Julius II’s Aura in Raphael’s painting is mostly composed of subtle purple hues, the colors of intuition and vision. Although each portrait on view can be decoded and translated into specific characteristics with the aid of a simple aura color chart—speculating proves to be just as enjoyable.
Images: Marilyn Monroe's Aura (11.23) after Warhol, 2009. Hand-stitched, hand-dyed cotton. 35 1/2 x 35 1/2 inches; Mona Lisa’s Aura, after Leonardo Da Vinci, 2009. Hand-stitched, hand-dyed cotton. 34 3/4 x 25 3/4 inches; Frida Kahlo's aura, with Thorn Necklace and Hummingbird, 2009. Hand-stitched, hand-dyed cotton, 24 1/2 x 18 1/2 inches. Courtesy of the artist and Sara Meltzer Gallery.