What a riff on portraiture! Within art history, Giotto was the traditional champion of the backview, but with these bodies of work, Heather Straka lays claim to the back of the head, back of the neck and the upper back as her currency in contemporary New Zealand painting.
The Honeytrap is a new body of work; Somebodies Eyes is the series immediately prior. The Honeytrap paintings are direct, intimate and sensual – befitting the bare backs and cameo-like oval format of the paintings. The feel is restrained, almost Victorian, but Straka is in her element relishing her (painterly) powers of suggestion, and playing with what she presents and what she denies. We see only shoulders, the nape of a neck and carefully rendered hair. Bra straps and labels bring contemporary cues to this visual field. But only on occasion do we catch a jaw line or the glimpse of an eyelash.
Still, we read plenty into these works, from the confident poise of the dancer to the quietly lowered head of the dark-haired model alongside. We read subtle nuances of pose with aplomb – from the inclination of a cheek, to the drama of shoulder blades pulled taut or on the diagonal, rather than presented flat. We know what is assertive and what is demur, just as if we were the subjects.
The palette is typically Straka – rosebud or fleshpink through grey to her curiously sallow green – as are the controlled thin layers of oil paint. Here, all is care with no responsibility. And everything is utterly beautiful.
In Somebodies Eyes, the backview is clad in a military green jacket. This is painted to look ill-fitting, requiring a fantastic array of pins, needles, clips and even gaffer tape to hold it in place. Combined with the close cropped hair and heads, the overall effect is sometimes sinister. However the eye is led a gentle dance, as the gathered fabric adds to the elegant rhythm of curves set up between the painting’s oval edges and each model’s head, neck and shoulders. But in this series, heavy black frames contribute a sense of weight and history – further gravitas to the mystery of these models held (hostage) within Heather Straka’s powerful feminine gaze.
– Jonothan Smart