Juliana España Keller: Modern Camouflage

Text by Marsha Taichman

Upon entering Juliana España Keller’s studio, there is an image of a woman, a self portrait by the artist. An ongoing motif in España Keller’s work is the self portrait, in this instance, head on, like a deer in the headlights. But rather than looking stunned, España Keller looks weary and knowing in an unstable world. She gives the viewer a direct stare. Her camouflage makeup accentuates the fact that she is otherwise unadorned, her hair is drawn away from her face, and her shoulders are bare. Rather than showing the viewer more of herself, her face in obscured by war paint. One might recall Gavin Turk’s Camouflage (Self-Portrait) or Andy Warhol’s Self Portrait with Camouflage from toward the end of his career, after he had been a target for both art criticism and gunshots. Though Keller’s work also nods to consumerism and commodity culture, it is more subtle, requiring viewers to ask questions of this image and the art within the exhibit that it accompanies. She is offering herself to the viewer as the target, entreating viewers to examine concerns that are integral to her practice: concealment, illumination and theatre with a purpose.

España Keller’s diverse artistic background is showcased through her paintings, photographs and sculptures. It is easy to feel trapped, surrounded, when looking at these works. Everything is bound in some way, framed, but still unsafe. Her sculptural light box installations illuminate troubling subjects: the artifice of a toy gun, a dock lurking in calm water. In this project, she inserts herself in rural settings with selected tools and props, and then photographs what transpires. The images are visually seductive, with rich hues and vibrant colors, which make them more difficult to see them as threatening. Examine the image of the Husky in profile and the animal trap in concert (yet to be titled). The dog, strong and regal, is reduced to the role of victim by association because of the trap’s terrible potential. What the images and sculptures represent is untamed, but there is a sense that camouflage is being employed here as well, as staged images that seem to blend in with nature photography. In our high-tech, sci-fi reality, we have made a collective claim on the wild, and España Keller draws attention to this sad fact.

In this exhibition, the battle is to move the boundaries between the urban and the rural, the physical and the cultural, the understated and the overstated, to explore the in-between. Modern Camouflage is a highly personal investigation of what constitutes the self and its surroundings. Perhaps the artist herself phrases it best when she claims, “It is a soulful search for the ‘urban primitive’ in all of us.”