Benedikt Stegmayer

Make-up Reality - Markovic’s Transfigurative Works

Markovic’s transfigurative works can be seen under a variety of different aspects. They explore the essence, possibility, and limits of portraiture, they experiment with text and subtext, with different possible forms of representation, they eliminate pictorial illusions such as likeness or perspective. Each series of transfigurative works, the Lipstick Paintings, the Selfshaves, and the Text Portraits, is the result of intensive research and the attempt to develop and expand the idea of the portrait. Markovic’s refusal to simply repeat and reproduce the achievements of other artists from all ages as well as his own, leads him to amass new methods and concepts to realize groundbreaking works. They are, even though based upon thorough research of other artists and their works, independent and often bear little physical resemblance to their predecessors.

The first series of transfigurative works by Markovic is the Lipstick Paintings. They are a series of portraits of some of the world’s most famous women in their respective fields: politics, philosophy, music, and film. The portraits are monochrome paintings, each portrait using roughly 60 to 100 tubes of lipstick, which is applied to silk velvet enclosed in a heavy golden frame, the names of the portrayed engraved onto an affixed brass plate.

Markovic conducts research into the cultural background of each of the portrayed women in order to determine an adequate lipstick color. He is interested in make-up and all its facets and chooses lipstick as the most stereotypical form of female make-up; however, the heavy golden frame and the engraved brass plate are also part of the make-up, which Markovic doesn’t consider only where it is concerned with enhancing the appearance of a human being, but also the appearance of objects and their façades in general. In this way, the Lipstick Paintings are ironically self-referential.The artist is making-up their surfaces so they are more pleasing to the eye. However this is not a cheap way to attract our attention by satisfying our desire for something beautiful. Markovic is simply coherently applying the content of his work to its outer form. Both the Selfshaves, which use

make-up in a reverse form, and the Text Portraits, which function by applying make-up to a different context and with a different content, completely lack any sensually attractive qualities that the Lipstick Portraits have.

The made-up appearance of the Lipstick Portraits, however, lacks, or rather suppresses, any informative content because it only communicates the empty surface. The presence of the make-up, though, draws attention away from this feature of the series. Furthermore, all of the information we get about the portrayed is already pre-existing within ourselves, which is communicated to us by a small detail, the engraved names of the women, which activates a number of discourses about the portrayed. This renders it unnecessary to add any further information, since we ideally have a fair amount of knowledge about them, which we only need to reactivate. In these ways, we do not gain any information or knowledge by seeing the Lipstick Paintings, though the make-up distracts from this fact. Even though Markovic is aware of this, his aim is not to criticize make-up and make-up practices with the Lipstick Paintings. He is, rather, playfully disclosing their effects by using them for his self-ironic works.

The Selfshaves is the second series of Markovic’s transfigurative portraits. They are self-portraits, but they are, at least in appearance, quite unlike any self-portraits we can think of. The artist shaves himself, or gets a barber to do so, and afterwards cleans and dries his face with a white towel. The resulting artwork, or fetish, is the towel with the artist’s DNA traces. And what better and more objective form of a portrait could possibly exist? The Selfshaves are completely objective or at least as objective as natural science can be, since genetic analyses of the traces left in the towel can link the model to the work without recurring to some obscure and highly subjective notion of likeness, which is required for classical portraits. The correlation between Markovic and his self-portraits is truly verifiable, something we previously might have assumed to be quite at odds with products from the realm of art.

This form of representation, however, might not be all that new and innovative after all. We can go back two thousand years in history to find the mentioning of a portrait being produced in just that way. In Christian mythology, St. Veronica is said

to have given her veil to Jesus so he could wipe his forehead. According to the story, Jesus’ face was miraculously impressed upon it. Of course, the inventors and early adherents of Christianity presumably knew very little about genetics, but the story of St. Veronica has inspired folk etymology to (falsely) attribute the origin of the name Veronica to the Latin vera (true) and the Greek eikon (image). The idea of the truest portrait as the impression of someone’s face might have been inspired by the thought that this would be a form of representation relatively safe from conscious or accidental manipulation by an artist working as a medium, a quality which is retained even in Markovic’s Self-shaves. The chosen iconoclastic form does not leave the artist any room for manipulation.

Markovic, however, goes further than Jesus. Unlike the image in Christian mythology, Markovic doesn’t leave the impression of his face on the towels and gives us no directly perceivable clues with his work. Only the tops he paints on the towels afterwards suggest to us that there is a face present, even though its sensual qualities are missing.

Just as make-up is important for the Lipstick Paintings, so too it plays a central role in the Selfshaves. This time, however, it is male make-up. The male equivalent of a woman’s application of lipstick is to shave, a process of removal. So we are presented with two opposing strategies of make-up, one used by men, the other by women.[1] This suggests that Markovic’s Lipstick Portraits and Selfshaves have to be analyzed under the aspect of gender stereotypes which is certainly one of the central themes of the works. Bojana Pejic has focused on gender aspects in Markovic’s transfigurative works in her text Working on the Face.[2] She does not fail to mention that the traditionally female domain of make-up is also linked to the notions of appearance versus essence or façade versus substance. Not being interested in highlighting make-up as something specifically female, nor indeed restricted to living beings, Markovic works with the dualism of removing versus adding. Both removing and adding are traditional techniques used in the making of art. The artist can sculpt his face either out of a block of material he reduces or by joining materials together.

[1] Obviously neither strategy can be attributed to either of the sexes. Female make-up includes depilation and male make-up includes painting one’s face.

Since 2002, Markovic has been working on a third series of transfigurative works, the Text Portraits, which are portraits of homeless men – persons who, for an almost infinite number of different reasons, do not cope with life in the society they live in. They are usually regarded as failures since they cannot adapt or conform to the way of life their society expects from its members. We know that homeless persons exist and we cannot help but encounter them in the streets of every city. However, we do not know much or anything about the individuals. We might have some stereotypes about homeless people but society tries to eliminate the homeless from our collective memory as thoroughly as possible. They are inconvenient since they reveal shortcomings in and of our society. Politicians don’t like to associate with them and thus do not provide them with a discursive platform and companies aren’t interested in them due to their lack of purchasing power. For these and other reasons they are unrepresented in public discourse.

Markovic’s Text Portraits are giving a voice to these persons. The approach he takes in portraying them is very different from both the Lipstick Paintings and the Selfshaves. The viewer has no previous knowledge about the individuals in the Text Portraits, which is quite the opposite of the other transfigurative works. Markovic therefore cannot work with strategies that rely on such. Using the names of his models in the title of the portraits, maybe with the supplement homeless person, producing some realistic, figurative image of them would probably be enough for us to activate our stereotypes about homelessness in general. Yet we wouldn’t learn anything about the portrayed persons themselves. Markovic hence resorts to text. He interviews homeless individuals and lets them speak about themselves, their thoughts and ideas about life and society, their experiences or whatever else they want to discuss. The interviews are videotaped and then transcribed. Markovic picks a fragment of the story and paints it on canvas. In exhibitions, the resulting Text Portraits are usually shown in combination with the video interviews. But even without seeing the videos, the Text Portraits communicate something essential about the portrayed: they are depicted as individuals with individual stories, rather than as members outside of society, made-up of our stereotypes.

[2] Pejic, Bojana, Working on the Face, in: Markovic, Transfigurative Works, p. 103-117, Nuernberg 2006, p. 111-112.

Like the other transfigurative works, the Text Portraits need to fulfill a set of functions, which determine their form. The function has always dictated the form of any particular portrait. Propaganda portraits are different from icon paintings because their makers are concerned with representing something largely different. Unlike in the Lipstick Paintings and the Self-shaves, Markovic needs to give us information about the portrayed when using homeless persons as his models. Painting text on canvas is a radical form of painting that cannot clearly be distinguished from literature.

In contrast to the Selfshaves, which are characterized by a high degree of objectivity, the Text Portraits are highly subjective and manipulative. The homeless persons are telling us stories. Very often they tell about their own history and how they remember it. There is no way for us to know whether their memory is accurate or whether one of them deliberately wants to deceive us. But these are still the genuine thoughts of a homeless person. By only transferring a fragment of each interview onto canvas, however, the artist is selecting and thus lowering the degree of objectivity yet again, as he takes the text out of its context and therefore works as a medium. This is an inevitable result of the attempt to communicate how homeless persons are individuals with unique histories.

Markovic’s Text Portraits are political but very subtle and subversive. He does not merely want to depict a homeless person in order to make us aware of the fact that homelessness is still a problem in our society that we cannot ignore. This would be too banal ...He wants to go further. This is why he needs to give them a voice and include them in public discourse. The Text Portraits are always realized as part of a bigger project which takes place in any one city. Markovic produces eight video interviews per city, eight corresponding Text Portraits and one massive banner, on which a fragment of one interview is printed. The banner is then installed on a prominent façade in a commercial area of the city. These are spaces, which are otherwise only taken by advertising, commercial or political. “Today what we experience,” Baudrillard claims, “is the absorption of all virtual modes of expression

into that of advertising ... the form of advertising, that of simplified operational mode, vaguely seductive, vaguely consensual because it has no depth, it is instantaneous and instantaneously forgotten.”[3] For a short time, Markovic’s publicly displayed Text Portraits interfere with this discourse, presenting a mass audience with something rather unexpected. His banner might at first sight be seen as an advertisement, since this is what we would expect on a public façade. But already its form makes us suspicious, since we expect to get the important information instantaneously, namely what to buy or whom to vote for, without having to actively look for it or having to read a whole text. The banner is thus subverting public space in two ways, through its form as well as through its content.

The subversion of public space and our stereotypical understanding of homelessness is essential for the Text Portraits. They stand in opposition to our cityscapes and to our mindsets and become creative products by being an antithesis to the general politics of representation. The banner-sized Text Portraits appear strange in city centers, just as if they were from another, utopian world; they seem foreign to us because they are not instantaneous, because we need to spend some time reading them, and because they don’t want to seduce us to do something. They are make-up for the city. At the same time Markovic makes the homeless visible, who are made invisible by the current power relations. So he makes-up the homeless as well.

[3] Baudrillard, Jean, Simulacra and Simulation, Ann Arbor, 1994, p. 87 [original title: Simulacres et Simulation].

First published in Milovan DeStil Markovic, Rosenheim, Cacak: Kunstverein Rosenheim, Galerija Nadezda Petrovic, 2008.

Benedikt Stegmayer lives and works in Berlin. He studied philosophy, art history, and comparative literature in Tübingen, Cambridge, Paris, and Berlin. He works as a free curator and writes texts on art.