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Photographic images, especially those in news media, suggest a certain sense of objectivity, equating representation with honesty. Painter Jeanette Mundt challenges this assertion, with her paintings that take newspaper photos as their source material. She obscures or rearranges the images, foregrounding an often dark history belied by their polished surfaces.
Her solo exhibition at Overduin & Co., If the Devil Could Kill You Now He Would, features two main bodies of work, one depicting members of the 2016 U.S. Women’s Olympic gymnastics team, and one based on an iconic paparazzi photo of Princess Diana sitting on the diving board of a yacht owned by her boyfriend’s father. Taken a week before her premature death in a high-speed car crash, the photo of Diana depicts her as privileged but solitary. Sporting a bright, turquoise one-piece bathing suit, she sits perched on the edge of the diving board, her head turned to look back over her shoulder. A lone seagull is captured in the upper right of the image, hovering in mid-air.
Mundt uses this image as a starting point for several painterly explorations. In I Am the Princess and I Am Worth Saving (2019), Mundt depicts Diana on the diving board and the seagull above, but replaces the yacht and background with vigorous, abstract brushwork in clashing oranges, purples, and creams. Stressing the physicality of her technique, the outlines of the stretcher bars can be seen through the paint, as if the result of some rough frottage. The placid tranquility of the Mediterranean afternoon is overturned with an ab-ex-style tempest. Thank You But She’s Already Dead (2019) uses a similar image of Diana and the seagull, but obscures them beneath hazy layers of overpaint, and thick vertical black forms that resemble shadowy palm trees; the streaks of red at their bases recall Diana’s death in a Paris tunnel. Beginning with a static tabloid photo, Mundt’s painting collapses a bucolic but forlorn image of the princess—one of the last taken—with the grisly scene of her death a short time later.
Based on photographs from The New York Times, Mundt’s Olympics series picture the U.S. women’s gymnastics team competing in the 2016 Rio Olympics. The five young women on the team gained international acclaim for their victories, though later reports revealed horrendous abuse suffered at the hands of the team doctor. Mundt appropriates seemingly objective photos of the young women vaulting and soaring, and alters them, alluding to the violence these gymnasts were silently subjected to. In Best Individual: Laurie Hernandez I (2018), the athlete is captured mid-routine, toes pointed down, ponytail floating above her head, and is framed by Olympic rings and “Rio 2016,” written in white against a green background. Mundt blurs the figure with a vertical smear across the canvas, suggesting movement while also defacing her. In doing so, she allows the painting to suggest a multiplicity of meanings, drawing out the trauma beneath the original photo’s technical precision. Mundt uses another technique in Born Athlete American: Madison Kocian II (2019), cutting up the gymnast’s body to create an acrobatic dance of disjointed and severed limbs. Again, movement is inferred, not by blurring the image, but with a stop-motion type effect based on Times photographer Bedel Saget’s composite photos, which recall Muybridge’s photographic movement studies. At the same time, the brutality done to the body is clear. Kocian tumbles through the air, her sliced-up body at odds with the graceful movements portrayed in the source photo. There is only one work included from this series at Overduin, her most compelling; the other four hung in the recent Whitney Biennial.
Alongside these two bodies of work, Mundt has included two paintings of poppies, provocatively titled Heroin – Some Poppies and Heroin – Corot’s Still and Some Digital Poppies (both 2019). Presumably drawing a connection between the picturesque flowers and their harmful properties once processed into heroin, they lack the depth and nuance of her photo-based works. Absent the visual drama of the other paintings, they rely too strongly on their titles to impart significance.
In her fractured, blurred, and layered paintings, Mundt proves the inability of the static image to effectively communicate the complexity of what it depicts. Today’s digital media culture is characterized by a paradox: images capture everything, from high fashion to surveillance footage, yet their veracity is dubious, as they become increasingly easy to fake or manipulate. The more our world is mediated by images, the less stability they provide. Mundt’s paintings lay bare the illusions that photographs offer, shedding light on more complex narratives left out of the conventional news cycle. For Mundt, obscurity can be as revealing as clarity.
Matt Stromberg is a freelance arts writer based in Los Angeles. In addition to Carla, he has contributed to the Los Angeles Times, KCET Artbound, The Guardian, The Art Newspaper, Hyperallergic, Terremoto, Artsy, Frieze, and Daily Serving.
This review was originally published in Carla issue 18.