Kiki Lamers

 

 

Presumed innocent

 

The depiction of children is one of the most dangerous, mine-strewn paths, in purely iconographic terms, an artist can undertake. At one end of the road the impassive monolith of sentimental art beckons as a form of desperate refuge in the midst of pathos. Each individual in its unending succession of smiling, pink-faced cherubs (think late Renoir) is the separate embodiment of a cynically codified innocence that is all the more repellent for its adherence to a delusional myth rooted in society’s fear of its own violent impulses. Rather than simply assuaging our fears, sentimental art invites us to compare our rattled adult psyches with the phenomenon of exaggerated subjectivity, as represented by the child’s expression while it plays with a puppy, and to find our grown-up selves forever lacking. Innocence, having never really existed in human behaviour as we’d like to believe, functions in sentimental art as a way of disabling the viewer’s critical apparatus, then drowning it in a sea of moralizing banalities.

 

Sentimentality would seem to be diametrically opposed to the other, admittedly more dangerous extreme of child representation, pornography, but in actuality the two opposites are closely linked through their adherence to unreality. One need only consider Lewis Carroll’s unforgettable camera portraits of his beloved Alice, frozen in the conventions of Victorian decorum while somehow becoming transformed into an erotic symbol, to realize that the sexual exploitation of children requires that, as subjects, they must first be stripped of their identity as people. No one who is depicted in a pornographic mode is really an individual human, because their physicality has been transformed into something objective, something that the viewer can use, with or without permission from the one being depicted. Because young children have not yet reached the age where they are able to make certain kinds of decisions about what happens to them, the lure and the taboo of child pornography resides in the refusal to see the child for what s/he is, and to transform that essential humanity into something which is there for the taking.

 

These two extremes of representation are necessary road markers in any discussion of the work of Kiki Lamers, a Dutch painter, who for several years has created unusually lush, carefully rendered and lovingly detailed portraits of young children. A realist by inclination, Lamers typically paints her subjects in the nude, giving them naturalistic poses that are comparatively revealed or obscured by the extent to which they are cropped within the picture frame. Meeting our gaze halfway without hesitancy or shame, they are not disguised as adults, nor are they transformed into exaggerated stereotypes of moral purity for the sake of adulthood’s fierce inclination toward self-incrimination. On the contrary, Lamers’ subjects are purely realistic in their technique, and quite naturalistic in the way their bodies and facial expressions have been arranged. Most importantly, their gaze is fully human, disarmingly so, since the absence of physical development is often experienced in direct contrast to the heightened state of awareness indicated by their unflappable gaze.

 

If any element of Kiki Lamers’ work invites us to deconstruct her paintings in our search for a prurient subtext, it is colour. Although virtually all of her colours are directly taken from nature, one gets the sense from looking at Lamers’ paintings that the palette has been disassociated from its sources, so that the watery pinks, blues and greens have taken leave of their precise relationship to human flesh. […]

 

As a rule, Lamers does not depict her subjects as either eternally innocent or as preternaturally mature. In fact, what is most immediately puzzling about her approach is the degree to which she insists on seeing her subjects as people first, and children second. This does not mean that she is in any way indifferent to the particular needs and weaknesses that children have, or to their distinctive attributes as pictorial subjects. On the contrary, Lamers seems to understand the psychology of children to a greater degree than almost any other artist working today, and to apply that knowledge to the way she positions and frames them. But she also appears extremely aware of the extent to which many adult observers, in the name of kindness or sympathy, often undermine the special humanity that children possess by talking down to them. This is not quite the same as over-sentimentalizing them, but it does severely limit the capacity for intergenerational communication. By contrast, Lamers studies her subjects very deeply, and asks herself what it is about children that most observers cannot see. Despite the fact that the children in her paintings are far from developed or mature, what is unique about them is that they are fully functioning and conscious human beings, with a complex range of needs and aspirations that are every bit as subtle and demanding as those of adults. […]

 

Obviously, the moral questions arising from her representation of naked children are at the centre of Kiki Lamers’ motivation in creating such images. As much as she might like us to respond to her adult and child subjects in the same way, she is also aware that there are very few moral concerns that rate as highly in society as the protection and spiritual care of a child. Transforming the naked image of a child into an icon may seem a reckless way reinforce this hypothesis, but in reality it is one of the very few ways in which the topic can be brought into active discussion. Thanks in large part to the vast and rapid proliferation of all kinds of pornography, the societal battleground over issues of representation has expanded to include all forms of nudity, so that today it is virtually impossible to view a child’s exposed flesh without also being keenly aware of the layers of contention that are caught up in such a display. Lamers seems to possess a conviction that further repression of such images can only have a negative result, both for adults and children, since it increases our sense of doubt as to whether we are capable of sufficient self-control. In an ideal society, we should be able to enjoy the image of a child for all its iconographic complexity and emotional depth. By creating pictures to be enjoyed in that ideal society, Lamers seems to be expressing a confidence in humanity’s essential goodness that only time, and tolerance, can deliver.

 

 

Dan Cameron.