Ornamental Beings

By Karen Kienzle

"Not on one strand are all life's jewels strung." William Morris, The Life and Death of Jason

Andrea Borsuk's ornate paintings offer big impact in small packages, monumental meaning in tiny details. These works reward careful viewing, divulging more intricacies the closer one looks. Like a jewelry box, her works are jam-packed with visual bling-unique trinkets, strange amulets, bizarre baubles. And, like individual treasures in a jewelry box, each detail promises the triumph of a discovery, the satisfaction of a rich story, the intrigue of a forgotten history. 

Inspiration, for Borsuk, comes from diverse and divergent sources. She works as a cultural sampler, weaving together imagery from popular culture, history, and fashion. Jewelry-Cartier, mourning jewelry, even dime store charms-offers rich source material and symbolic value through its associations to seduction and intimacy. Artistic traditions from India, Africa, and China—particularly the depictions of feminine forms—also provide creative fodder for the artist. 

Borsuk's signature paintings invite viewers to experience richly bejeweled landscapes. Against a painterly backdrop of swirling skies, dramatic sunsets, and a usually hinted-at horizon line of trees, Borsuk creates her own dangling compositions inspired by jewelry designs. Within these "jewels in the sky," it's all about the ladies-the feminine forms that adorn the pendants, necklaces, and chains. While the background landscapes are intended to merely set the stage, they do play an important, albeit secondary, role. They firmly root her work her Santa Cruz environs, and in their loose and ephemeral depiction, provide a delightful contrast to the precisely painted foreground elements. In combining landscape and female form, Borsuk highlights the two elements perhaps most frequently associated with beauty in both art and culture. She also deliberately plays with the power of sex to sell—literally and figuratively—through a lush landscape, an attractive woman, a shiny trinket, or, in the case of her work, all three. 

Deeper and darker metaphors also abound in these works. The artist often highlights what is outside the frame of her compositions, the force that is "pulling the strings" of her chains and necklaces. A recent source of inspiration is the Moirae or Fates from Greek mythology who were thought to control destiny-one was believed to spin the thread of life, one measured each thread, or life, and one was responsible for cutting each thread and therefore determining death. And memento mori, those visual reminders of the fleeting nature of life, appear throughout Borsuk's work in the form of clocks, flowers, and birds. After Katrina, the artist began to incorporate the depiction of wind in her compositions and other visual references to disaster and danger followed-life preservers, orange safety cones, etc.. As if to counter these more ominous references, Borsuk prefers to include a good dose of lucky charms, like rabbits' feet and eight balls. 

The feminine in Borsuk's paintings is beautifully articulated as a variety of familiar characters and roles. Some are what the artist calls "feminine archetypes," others are drawn from history or popular culture. The artist develops a motley cast of pin ups, dominatrices, damsels in distress, acrobats, synchronized swimmers, and some Josephine Baker and Venus of Willendorf thrown in for good measure. To create the figures, Borsuk makes stencils that allow her to replicate each form in cookie-cutter fashion throughout her paintings. She delights in playing with these paper dolls, bestowing each individual figure its own costumes and decorations. But seeing so many identical figures is unsettling: the women appear to have discarded their individual characters for a collective one. While encouraging us to revel in the beauty of her little women, Borsuk also plays up their creepiness, challenging us to consider our own culpability in a culture and media landscape that continues to objectify women. 

Visiting Andrea Borsuk's studio is like stepping into a life-size jewelry box. Enticing eye candy is everywhere, compelling you to explore. And like with any jewelry box or closet-collections of personal items worn on the body-the contents are intensely personal, imbued with private meaning. Torn between states of voyeurism and fascination, you find yourself attracted, then slightly repulsed by your own responses. It's a tricky tension, one that Borsuk employs in all of her work to highlight the very complicated nature of how we view—and how we respond to—femininity, sexuality, and beauty.