When Kim Kardashian appeared at the Met Gala wearing a black, Demna Gvasalia–designed ensemble that covered her entire face, it felt like a betrayal. The phantom was doubtlessly Kim—it had her recognizable bone structure and hourglass physique—yet seeing a body deliberately deprived of a face felt unsolicited and alien. Her pitch-black silhouette was a Houdini trick for this millennia, reveling in the abject interplay between the droid and the analog.
Cristina Canale’s solo exhibition, “The Encounter,” at Nara Roesler may induce a similar sense of bafflement. The Berlin-based Brazilian artist’s portraits burst with color but retain an absence. Eerily blank expressions are not unheard of in portraiture (think of Mona Lisa’s undefinable expression), but literally wiped-out visages hit a different punch. Meandering through the variously scaled portraits brings to mind the couple passionately locking lips in René Magritte’s The Lovers II (1928) or elegantly deadpan mannequins in boutique windows. Canale’s women are amalgamations of estrangement and grace, infinite potential and cryptic disposition.
The artist is influenced by glossy faces in fashion advertisements and art history’s flirtation with dense planes of color that transcend their hues, particularly Kazimir Malevich’s Black Square (1915). I also discerned some of Hilma af Klint in the paintings’ reason-defying renditions of familiar forms, as well as a hint of Georgia O’Keeffe through Canale’s wet and lucid hand gestures, which may or may not mimic the nature—nothing is what you see, yet all could well be true.
Vox (2021) taps directly into these inspirations: A posh figure responds to the painter’s gaze with an editorial pose, pulling our attention to her ornate earring, beret and red lips. Across her vibrant green skin, the jawline, nostrils and eye sockets are faintly characterized with blink-and-you’ll-miss-it brushstrokes, the rest left blank. A gush of yellow, triangular geometry radiates from her mouth, a polka-dotted utterance. The woman is devoid of a face, but her potential voice is monumentalized.
The poser in White Glove (2021) avoids the nicotine odor on her fingers with a white mitt. The hand, however, is not hers—logically, it appears to be a mannequin’s, although the artist seems undriven by reason. Smoke stems from the cigarette’s blazing tip and amasses into a grayish cloud, vying in scale with the light black of the woman’s featureless face.
Canale’s fascination with drooping forms continues in The Sad Queen (2021), in which two tear drops, hinted in subtle brushstrokes, fall from the woman’s eyes. The painting’s emphasis is on the sobbing figure’s lush, bright-yellow hair. The emotion which would otherwise blanket her face is channeled into the tears, one massive and other just sprouting. They drape towards her shoulders like earrings laden with unexpressed heartache.
The show’s titular painting houses the only male subject. He stands before a sitting woman amid splashes of vibrant spring colors. Is an encounter still an encounter without faces? The nature of their exchange or sentiments about the rendezvous are left a blur. They almost blend into the abundantly painted surrounding fauna, paralleling the two massive, green flowers hovering above them.
“This is the Met gala, not Halloween!” one Twitter user said about Kardashian’s hollow sartorial delivery. She occupied the space in between the physical and the void, a gray area of neither and nor. In Canale’s universe, featureless women defy the grim reality through pastel hues and coiled forms. Once freed from faces, they can become many things—even, in one 2020 painting, a vase. There, a purple vessel holds a joyful bouquet of blues, yellows and greens. Seen another way, it is also a woman, crowned with flowers over her head and unburdened by expressions. —Osman Can Yerebakan
Cristina Canale, Vox, 2021. Acrylic, oil and graphite on canvas, 110 x 100 x 4 cm.