Charmed, I'm sure

By Harvest Henderson

February 6, 2004

There are two types of images that human beings have always loved, says local painter Andrea Borsuk: landscapes and beautiful women.

Borsuk's current exhibit, oil-on-wood panel paintings, combine the two -- tongue firmly in cheek -- juxtaposing landscapes and stereotyped portraits of women .

Tucked under the Hawthorne Bridge at Savage Art Resources, Borsuk's "Charmed" depicts moody, blurred landscapes that hiss with fire and mist. Chains and necklaces, meticulously painted link for link, stretch across the foreground, and from them hang a variety of charms and pendants. The subjects of these baubles are the first thing to catch the eye: women, all kinds of them. Disco-era nude pornography models, Victorian coquettes with pink flowers in their white wigs, Japanese geishas and tribal fertility symbols hang side by side on chains that crisscross Borsuk's crimson and aqua skies like telephone wires.

"They're charms; they're interchangeable," Borsuk said in a telephone interview last week. "They're constructed ideals through male fantasies." She describes her subjects as caught in "a moment of glory, of heightened beauty, dressed up. A lot of it is about fleeting beauty and about history."

Borsuk has been working on this body of work since 2000. Her ornamental women are all re-created from found images—paintings, statues, actual jewelry—that she has rendered as true to the original sources as possible. She frames the women in pendants, hanging from chains that pulley them across oily, mysterious landscapes that Borsuk describes as "funny backdrops that are supposed to be epiphanies."

A 1990 graduate of Columbia University's fine art graduate program, Borsuk moved to Portland eight years ago, teaches at Portland State University and has been active in exhibitions such as last year's eclectic Core Sample. She says landscapes never entered her paintings until she came to Portland. She'd been superficially sampling what she calls goddess images for some time, resulting in collections of work like 2001's "Ornaments." 

But the move west gave her characteristically figurative paintings a sense of place, with skies and mountains that she believes have only begun to surface. 

In "Charmed," her heroines' interactions with their surroundings are darkly enigmatic, strung as the characters are on chains that extend endlessly into the skies, carrying them forward like meat on slaughterhouse hooks. Strings of startlingly white pearls and detailed beadwork descend from the sky around them like towropes, or the strings of colorful wind-catching pennants at used-car lots. The women exchange glances with each other and the viewer, at times dangling their legs playfully outside the gold filigree borders of their cameos as if swinging at a playground. 

Borsuk's charms go beyond the typical feminist grappling with ideals of beauty. Her skill makes the inherent politics more than just a pithy prop. She is also not without a sense of irony. To Borsuk, these images are about seduction—a critique of the culture's allure and fascination with exotic, hypersexualized images of women. The images are testament to their pull over the artist, too. 

"The question is posed: 'Is this from a feminist perspective?' Well, yes; I want to show (these images of women) out of their context and dislocate them—but I'm also attracted to them in the first place, so I have to question my own attractions. Am I just following a pattern that's been set up for me?"