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Rose Frantzen: The Optics of Identity

Published onJan 15, 2021
Rose Frantzen: The Optics of Identity
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Rose Frantzen: The Optics of Identity

Anyone who has met Rose Frantzen knows she likes talking to people, especially while painting them. Her work is a conversation—between the artist, the sitter and the viewer, and between the artist and the medium of oil paint and the centuries-old tradition of realist painting. She pushes herself to find new ways to explore and develop her ideas about painting and about people. In the series “In the Face of Illusion,” Frantzen overlays her masterful portraits with a variety of designs that make us mis-perceive the images beneath. As we approach the paintings, we realize that the distortions are fleeting illusions—tricks of the eye that obscure our perception of the person in the painting.

Created in 2017, the series expresses Frantzen’s concern about the divisive national debate on race, immigration, nationalism and identity that characterized the U.S. Presidential election, and the proliferation of social media and other online sources that have replaced the newspaper and nightly news as widely accepted arbiters of information.  The optical patterns in the paintings, which obscure or alter the beautifully represented individuals beneath, feel like a violation of both the subject and the act of realist painting, a manifestation of the artist’s deep anxiety at the events of the time. The paintings embody the danger of defining people by our preconceptions and prejudices about them, based on their appearance.  In Frantzen’s words, “With optical illusions, believable but false reactions get in the way of reality. Similarly, what we think we see when we see the other can be distorted by the optics of identity.” People, just like optics, are not always what they appear at first sight.

When Frantzen and her husband, Charles Morris, decided to make Maquoketa their base of operations in 2005, they committed themselves to being active members of the community. This commitment led to the multi-year project “Portrait of Maquoketa,” 180 portraits of townspeople who signed up to sit for the artist in a downtown storefront studio. Ranging from babies to elders, the sitters provided a cross-section of the town’s faces for the artist to portray. In her conversations during the five-hour sittings, Rose gained insights into each person’s life, aspirations and heartbreaks that she found deeply moving. The project deepened her appreciation of the face, and the portrait process, as a way of understanding the character of an individual. “As I listened to people tell their stories, I realized that certain hardships can limit people’s possibilities…I learned of tragedies all over town.”

A Skewed View Rendered Squarely by Closer Proximity, 2017 by Rose Frantzen (American, b. 1965). Oil on linen. On loan from the artist.

“In the Face of Illusion” intentionally sabotages such insights by placing a visual barrier in front of the sitter as a metaphor for the barriers we unconsciously erect in our daily interactions with other people based on our prejudices and preconceptions. In “A Skewed View Rendered Squarely by Close Proximity,” the large-scale portrait of an elderly woman is overlaid with horizontal bands, each divided into sections of darker and lighter paint, that appear to narrow or expand at their ends when viewed from a distance. When viewed closeup, this illusion disappears. The bands are clearly straight and parallel and we are able to see the beautiful face beneath, just as we might appreciate the woman as a person once we get beyond our preconceptions based on her age and appearance.

Patterns of White Defining Black Defining White, Dot, Dot, Dot, Obscuring the Individual, 2017 by Rose Frantzen (American, b. 1965). Oil on linen. On loan from the artist.

“In the Face of Illusion” was originally shown as a wall of paintings, echoing the border wall that was a centerpiece of Trump’s 2016 campaign. In the series Frantzen employs both optical illusions and trompe l’oeil to convey her message. An optical illusion is a pattern or design that manipulates our vision to create an illusion. For instance, the double painting Patterns of White Defining Black Defining White, Dot, Dot, Dot, Obscuring the Individual, employs the illusion known as Kanisza’s Triangle, in which the eye perceives a triangle that is not drawn, but is created by our eye from the shapes around it. We imagine the triangle just as we imagine who a person is based on his or her race.

The Distortion of Force Used by Some Who Proclaim Faith in the One Who Said “The Meek Shall Inherit the Earth”, 2017 by Rose Frantzen (American, b. 1965). Oil on Linen. On loan from the artist.

The Distortion of Force Used by Some Who Proclaim Faith in the One Who Said ‘The Meek Shall Inherit the Earth”, shows a Hispanic man, presumably an immigrant, overseen by three armed soldiers on an acid purple backdrop of diagonal lines. The lines distort the apparent size of the soldiers, making the one on the right appear larger than that on the left, even though they are the same size, creating an atmosphere of dread and danger. “If misperception happens with simple lines and shapes,” Rose asks, “why wouldn’t this also occur when we encounter something as complex as another human being or maybe even ourselves?”

Us and Them, Warping the Peripheral, 2017 by Rose Frantzen (American, b. 1965). Oil on linen. On loan from the artist.

In Us and Them: Warping the Peripheral, a Hispanic woman with folded arms looks searchingly at us through a grid of green and yellow squares that create a barrier to our perception of her earnest face. The surface of the painting appears to undulate, an illusion caused by the tiny red and white markings at the corners of the squares--handprints, dollar signs and the initials US. On closer inspection, we realize that the woman’s image is not distorted. It is beautifully rendered in varying shades of yellow and green as if the squares were translucent colored lenses. It is really two paintings: The overall pattern of tiles, reminiscent of the work of pioneering op artist Victor Vasarely, beautiful in its own right, and the painting of the woman which we can only appreciate when we look beyond our initial perception.

Trompe l’oeil, literally “fool the eye” in French, refers to the illusion of three dimensions in two dimensional artworks created through the use of perspective, shading and modeling. In the context of this series, it can also be interpreted as “Trump the eye,” the deliberate manipulation of appearances through repeated mistruths. In This Too Shall Pass, a woman sits, a roll of masking tape in her hand, in front of a wall of dripped and scribbled paint. “This too shall pass,” a trompe l’oeil rendering of masking paint letters on the graffiti wall, hovers above her, a metaphor for the transitory nature of a historical moment and our own thoughts and opinions.

As a contemporary artist with progressive political views who lives and works in a small, conservative Midwestern farming town, Frantzen experienced the political upheaval of 2016 in a more personal and direct way than artists living in, say, New York or Los Angeles. “In the Face of Illusion” is her heartfelt effort use her chosen vocabulary—the painted portrait--to communicate her concern and anxiety to her hometown and to a wider audience, and to try new ways of constructing the painted image to create an honest dialogue about the issues that affect all of our lives.

About the Author
Tim Schiffer served as Executive Director of the Figge Art Museum in Davenport, Iowa from 2012-2019. Schiffer contributed to bringing many notable exhibitions to the Figge and to the Davenport community, the creation of the Major Exhibition Endowment, and the integration of the community and the museum with a dedication to building educational programs. This dedication to community engagement also led to the exhibition of Rose Frantzen's Portraits of Maquoketa at the Figge Art Museumand the acquisition of the series into the museums' permanent collection. 
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