Anna Von Mertens and Shamala Gallagher

Anna Von Mertens, “Frida Kahlo’s Aura, with Thorn Necklace and Hummingbird”


Anna Von Mertens Artist Statement



Playing off Walter Benjamin’s question of the aura in the age of mechanical reproduction, in Portraits I take iconic portraits from art history and interpret an actual aura for each painting.

My process involves researching the relationship between sitter and painter, the character and personality of both, and the historical context of the painting. I then paint dye onto fabric to create an aura in the same proportions as the original painting. Superimposed is a layer of hand-stitching that includes the silhouette from the source painting and the subject’s chakra pattern. The result is a defined figure with an aura-like emanation.

If Benjamin’s “aura” is the sense of awe felt in the presence of a unique work of art, my works acknowledge the myth built around each painting as it becomes more a story of the artwork than the actual artwork itself. I remember traveling to Italy and being surprised by what some of the real paintings looked like versus what they looked like projected in my art history class. These works are so well-known the real painting and the idea of that painting become two different things. Flipping Benjamin’s definition of the aura, my auras reference what is layered over the unique work of art.

And yet my auras simultaneously uphold the opposite: they return to the original intention of a portraitist working to capture the essence of their subject. While I admit to an element of the ridiculous—painting auras of dead people—these works are sincere portraits. As I researched how to read the prescribed distinctions of the tones and placement of colors in an aura photograph, I found myself getting seduced by belief. I found that in building a narrative of the subject’s life through color, an emotional presence surfaced. Allowing myself to believe seemed part of the process.

The tension of belief informs this work. The strange bed fellows of technology and New Age beliefs are brought together in the aura photograph, a process involving hand sensors that translate the electromagnetic field of an individual into a Polaroid print. Rather than question the authenticity of the aura photograph, I chose to respect the desire to investigate our existence more fully. We hold our beliefs in diverse–and precarious–ways.

As I began this series, I considered aura photographs as pure abstraction. I realized creating interpretative auras would allow me to explore abstract painting how I might not otherwise allow myself. I like that at the heart of this exploration, amid the questions of belief and representation, is a search for beauty.


Response by Shamala Gallagher

Anna Von Mertens was a recipient of a 2010 United States Artists Simon Fellowship and a 2007 Louis Comfort Tiffany Foundation Biennial Award whose solo exhibitions include the Berkeley Art Museum; Elizabeth Leach Gallery; Jack Hanley Gallery; Sara Meltzer Gallery; University Art Museum, Cal State Long Beach; and Mills College Art Museum.  Shamala Gallagher is pursuing an MFA at the Michener Center for Writers in Austin. Her poetry can be found in Spiral Orb and MELUS.

Comments are currently closed.