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Through a Glass, Darkly: Work by Serena Cole

Opening Reception:

Saturday, September 15th, 2012 6-9pm

Show Runs:

September 15-October 26, 2012 

This exhibition has special relevance to Soo Visual Arts Center and to Suzy Greenberg. Serena Cole is an example of one of the many artists that Suzy invested in throughout her career, she began working with Cole after discovering her work through Untitled 5 in 2006. The Untitled exhibition series is one of the many opportunities Suzy created to give a venue to undiscovered talent. Greenberg has followed Serena’s career throughout the years including her in another group exhibition, A New Breed of Watercolor, in 2009. Suzy worked closely with Serena to develop this solo exhibition at SooVAC and was eager to exhibit Cole’s new work.

Serena Cole is obsessed with looking. Looking at fashion magazines and models. Looking at the way we look at ourselves and obsess over what we see when we look in the mirror. She mines the place in our psyche that finds glamour in death and strives for unattainable ideals in beauty. Her drawings address the complex relationship of looking at the pages, looking at ourselves, and being looked at.


Cole’s exhibition, Through a Glass, Darkly, challenges the viewer to reflect upon these concepts in a new series of psychological portraits called “Black Mirrors.” The portraits are exquisite renderings of models pulled from the pages of high-end fashion magazines, recreating subtle tonalities in skin and hair in pencil and gouache with striking force. But Cole strips away the make-up, the fashion, the fantasy and exposes the battered psyches and mortal forms underneath it all. In Black Mirror I (2012), the model challenges the viewer with her direct gaze, looking back at us as we look at her. Her battered eye a physical sign of the psychological toll the manifesting the fantasy has taken. “...they also look back at you with a bittersweet expression, as if to say, 'this isn't all it's cracked up to be': No one is happy, we all feel the lack, even our fantasy selves.” states Cole. The black background blurs the line between object and self. We are looking into a mirror, looking into ourselves. Looking at the ideal and looking at ourselves is a complex give and take that Cole is acutely aware of.

She works in a long cultural tradition of idealizing, obsessing, and creating an unattainable beauty that stretches back to the Ancient Greek’s worship of the perfect male form and perhaps reached its apex in the virtuous and graceful Madonnas of The Italian Renaissance masters. Cole applies these art historical standards and anthropological interest in contemporary culture to her drawings, creating mental tension between ideal, what we are, and how we see ourselves. “ We see billboard-sized ads of models or musicians and everything is completely glamorized. We have never wanted reality, as far as I'm concerned, and still don't.” Serena takes the impossible ideals of beauty--the long neck, the heart-shaped mouth, the coltish awkwardness of adolescence--and acknowledges their beauty and their burden.

Cole’s drawings are infused with references to our cultural obsession with youth, beauty and death. Her Headdress drawings are like death masks--elaborate crowns highlighting the destruction of the spiritual through the material. In Search and Destroy (2011) a model with bleached blond hair and a leather jacket confronts the viewer with the steady gaze of a survivor. She has a black eye and the headdress filled with images of flame and destruction seems to have left her forehead and hair covered in soot. A massive headdress festooned with jewels and flowers sits on her head. It is an apocalyptic nightmare of escape and survival. Surviving defiantly in the center is a woman with a gold gun in a black dress and heels.

Cole’s work is the by-product of her seduction by old art history books and contemporary fashion magazines that kept her company in the bedroom of her remote home in Sierra Nevada Mountains as a child. She began to create her own world of glamour when she studied painting at the California College of Art in San Francisco. She is currently an instructor at the Art Studio at UC Berkeley and lives and works in the Bay Area.

-Tamatha Perlman

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