Stories From a Woman’s World

Stories From a Woman’s World

Today, digital cameras and other recording devices are ubiquitous and, for better or worse, with little more than a cell phone and the inclination, most anyone can document history 24 hours a day if they choose. From breaking news of police brutality to endless vacation footage from the Pyrenees, a person’s every move can now be thoroughly documented from cradle to grave.

This is new territory. Even a decade ago when a roll of film came with just 36 exposures (and the expense of processing), documentarians had to be selective about what they sought to preserve.

But consider this. People who were alive during the advent of photography could probably only have expected to have one or two photographs of themselves taken over the course of a lifetime.

It’s this idea that has long intrigued artist [link2post id=”218″]Kyla Rafert[/link2post] whose pen and ink paintings go on view this weekend at the Richard J. Demato fine Arts Gallery in Sag Harbor. Rendered on paper both in black and white and in vibrant color, Rafert has developed a unique style of painting that uses a combination of highly pigmented inks and silk screening techniques.

The result is imagery that depicts young women in carefully choreographed scenes reminiscent of the 19th century. Set off by dazzling wallpaper and textured floor patterns, the girls’ long flowing dresses and soulful gazes speak to a society enamored of youth and beauty. But there is also a slightly surreal touch and other imagery in the scene, such as a pile of dead fish, a framed painting of a ship at sea or a curiously distracted cat, make statements about what these women value or, perhaps more accurately, what they intuitively know they have lost.

“I work pretty intuitively,” explains Rafert. “Images pop into my mind and I’m very particular. I know how I want something to be.”

“A lot of the work is about perfectionism and fetishizing beauty,” she adds. “Like the sea wives while they’re waiting. I’m playing up on it a bit and it’s slightly tongue and cheek.”

Rafert, a native of Delaware, studied at the Rhode Island School of Design and in recent years has been living in Wisconsin (though she’s currently in the midst of a move to southern Ohio). Though much of her work seems to evoke a historic narrative — particularly as it relates to the sea — she explains that her art is not a conscious reflection of any specific locale.

“I’m not so much affected by the place I’m from, but from my relationship with the ocean,” she says. “I created these while I was living in the Midwest and missed the wide open expanse. There’s a certain romantic element to missing the coast.”

But it’s really the human element that figures predominately in Rafert’s work and she notes that the initial inspiration for the series came from old family photos that she scanned for her father in order to help him preserve them.

“What fascinated me was how people presented themselves in these completely invented environments,” she says. “Those backdrops of the Italian villa don’t fool anyone — or they’d pose with a favorite pet, or some weird thing.”

With the knowledge that people would sit for very few photographs in their lifetime, Rafert was fascinated by how people chose to have their images preserved.

“I love the stillness and the fact it’s such a created environment, and they are very purposefully presenting themselves in certain way,” she says. “It got me interested in Victorian imagery.”

Rafert also admits to being inspired by fairy tales — those cautionary stories of innocent girls and unseen danger lurking nearby in the woods. Often, the details in fairy tales are kept vague, Rafert notes, making them timeless and more compelling — and a bit more ominous. It’s a notion that she brings to her paintings as well.

“There’s an implied danger when you see a young girl alone in a room,” she says. “I love playing on these subtly ingrained defenses you have and being told ‘Don’t open the box.’”

That sense of danger is evident in some of Rafert’s more stark imagery of young girls in dire situations. Her ingénues are either lost in the woods, unconscious on the floor or dangling like puppets from strings in front of intricately patterned wall paper.

“They are adolescents in this perfectly constructed environment,” she explains. “The paintings all have a perfectly flat horizontal line in the background. It’s presented like a stage, with a full frontal view. It’s realistic, but unrealistic in how perfectly composed it is.”

Rafert explains that it’s all a conscious attempt at defining and freezing a moment in time and preserving the notion of idealized beauty, particularly as it was perceived in the Victorian era when photography was new and magical.

“It’s the space between youth and adulthood, the edge of decline. Right at the space before they fall apart,” explains Rafert. “I got preoccupied with preserving youth and beauty — that hyper romantic ideal that’s kind of creepy because it’s so composed.”


Kyla Rafert’s inaugural exhibition at the Richard J. Demato Fine Arts Gallery (90 Main Street, Sag Harbor) opens this Saturday, November 19 from 6 to 8 p.m. All are invited to stop by for some pre-holiday cheer and to welcome the gallery’s newest artist. For more information, call 725-1161.

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