Ciana Pullen is an award-winning American artist who lives in Berlin, Germany and writes about art and history at Post-. She earned her BFA from the Corcoran College of Art + Design in Washington, DC after studying photography and fine art. Since then she has worked with nonprofit community art groups, galleries and museums and has shown prints and paintings in Knew Gallery, Kathleen Ewing Gallery, the Capitol Hill Arts Workshop, the Corcoran Gallery of Art (all in Washington, DC) and Tivoli Studios & Gardens (in Charleston, SC). In 2008 she founded the Charleston Figure Drawing Group as a resource for local SC artists and began doing portraiture at the landmark Charleston Farmer’s Market. Today she accepts private portrait commissions, illustrates books and cartoons, and experiments with film and photo-collage.
I’ve always been pulled between tradition and radicalism. If it were a boxing match in my head, in one corner would be the Representational Artists – the Impressionists, the Old Masters, the entire Wyeth clan– and in the other would be the Ideas People, a bizarre mish-mash of Abstract Expressionists, postmodern social critics, and a stray cartoonist or two.
The pull of tradition probably came from my parents, who are both artists themselves, immersing me in the irresistible lore of the Impressionists and Old Masters. I somehow knew art was it for me, and I enjoyed the practicing, the study, the rigour– all things I’d ordinarily hate. As anyone who’s ever kept a sketchbook knows, the promise of the Age of Enlightenment– that a clear path of progress and applied curiosity will free our dazzling human potential– is difficult to squash. The pure pleasure and confidence afforded by the straightforward path of traditional representative art create an uncomplicated freedom that keeps me coming back.
I know I was writing stories when I was five. I don’t know what I did before that. Just loafed I suppose.
– P. G. Wodehouse
Especially to portraiture. Its framework is obvious (i.e. make a face that looks like your subject’s face) but it’s the most interesting to explore. I love seasoned, decisive mark-making and bold, rich lights and darks. A good portrait has movement to it. There’s not much overt storytelling in my portraits, but they tend to have a strong narrative quality created by mood, gesture, pose and composition. There’s strong personal narrative recorded in the muscles of someone’s neck and shoulders, the energy in their wrists and how their skeleton succumbs to their points of tension. I don’t think it’s magic how a portrait captures its subject, it’s just a matter of listening and paying attention.
But just as alluring as traditional framework is the radical possibility of exploding the framework altogether. It isn’t the novelty of the obscene or the chaos of the absurd that I like, but rather their sincerity, their potential for telling truths that usually go unsaid, even unthought. I frequently turn to film and photo-collage to dissect pop cultural visual media and put their messages about gender in absurd, sometimes obscene new contexts. I want to highlight how their usual contexts make them seem normal and palatable, because those contexts that operate on subconscious levels are particularly difficult to notice and pinpoint but still exert a considerable influence. But immediately I found it impossible to separate common gender tropes from racial ones. This led me to create the “Good Morning” and “Strong Characters” photo-collage series, episodically portraying an unknown melodrama between some models from clothing ads, old paintings of European monarchs, and some simple household objects. I’m crazy about history and can never get too far along on an idea without delving into the past, so I eventually took my cutouts out of their collage tableaus and into the history-drenched streets of Charleston, SC, for another photo-series.
Actually, it’s this radical drive that pulls me back to portraiture just as much as tradition. Really seeing someone else, or even just trying, is revolutionary. You can’t fall back on the old visual language, because it’ll lead you to see your subject the way some other artist saw some other subject a long time ago. It’s always new.