When is a self-portrait not a self-portrait? In paintings by Wilmington native Lauren E. Peters, the answer is always and never. Her wildly colorful, textured and patterned compositions are paintings of women, and she uses herself as the model for them—costumed, made up, in wigs and accessories; sometimes her face is obscured, but it is always transformed.
“I’ve been too many different people,” she says. “Changing my appearance, I look to see if I recognize the person in my reflection.” In this way, she not only explores aspects of her own psyche but also engages a broader dialogue with how people construct their appearances as manifestations of their identity. By extension, this confronts the social media-driven selfie culture—a parade of highly constructed self-portraits in which most aspects are anything but real.
“I majored in visual art in college,” Peters says. “I had this cast of the Venus de Milo in my studio, and for my thesis exhibit, I made a lot of paintings of it. Then for a long time, I looked for something else to paint. I didn’t find anything, and painting kind of fell by the wayside. But still in the back of my head I was looking.” During this time, Peters helped with costuming at a local theater—something she had always loved, and that kept her creativity engaged until one day she organized a little art studio again. “I started painting self-portraits, because basically that’s what I had. In retrospect, there were all these signs along the way.”
Her first show of these stylized, expressive paintings did rather well. Peters caught the bug again, won the prestigious Emerging Artist Fellowship by the Delaware Division of the Arts in 2018, and never looked back—only in the mirror. As the self-portrait project progressed, her taste for serialized subjects and her gifts from the world theater combined to great effect. But at the same time, the evolution of her style and technique expanded beyond forthright portrait studies and into an almost abstract purity in its language of shape and color. Her coterie of fabulously dressed, chromatically enhanced, symbol-rich characters and their animal familiars (earnest crows, plastic snakes, stuffed lions, zebra masks) are portraits, but they’re not about likeness.
“It was never about being photorealistic,” she says. “It wasn’t about representation at all; it was just about the present. It’s always been [about] just being able to stage myself and change things only for the sake of the painting. And then the same way, I’ve talked about this being a response to selfie culture and all of the filters that people use—that’s not their real self either; that’s all these other things, the smoke and mirrors. What we’re projecting as ourselves is not that at all.”
But Peters has not forgotten that original muse, the icon of Greek mythology and art historical touchstone from her earliest studio. In her inspirations and referenced elements, she continues to revisit archetypes of female power across the ages. Next year, she has a solo exhibition at The Delaware Contemporary, where she plans to also experiment with scale as she continues to channel the magic of these figures.
“I would like to see what they look like 6 feet tall!” she says—to expand their energy into women of undeniable presence who are, of course, also herself.