Michael Mapes | Pieces of Her

“Don’t become an artist. That’s my advice. Just don’t,” Michael Mapes says, half joking, half serious.  At this point, I can’t really tell. 

After all, here we are inside Opera Gallery in Hong Kong just hours before the opening of his exhibition, ‘The Anatomy of the Muse’. If I had to take a guess, I would assume that being an artist has worked out pretty well for Kentucky-born, New York-based Mapes. 

In this series, Mapes reinterprets the idea of studying the ‘fabric’ of society through a series of works depicting deconstructed ‘muses’ that explore the portrayal of women through art history. 

“I wanted to essentially continue this examination of painting and portraiture, though I chose very different content,” Mapes explains. “I thought, overall, that I was interested in the representation of females and portraiture and both popular culture and a more fine art context.”

Mapes’ unique – albeit borderline masochistic – medium essentially dissects recognisable artworks before considering meaningful ways to reconstruct both the artwork itself and the viewer’s perception of each subject. He does so by collecting and then painstakingly arranging countless fragments; photographs of family members, handwriting, fabric samples, rope, hair, jewellery, coffee, insect pins – the list goes on – in pipettes, vials and medical sampling jars. 

“I call it biographical DNA. It’s a term that I’ve coined. Essentially what I try to do is deconstruct a human subject and reconstruct – though not in a blood and guts way – to suggest pseudoscience, but in a way that’s more dynamic and personal,” Mapes explains. “The pins force you to go into this with a kind of scientific notion but lots of the materials aren’t scientific at all. They’re containers for beads, these are like Tic Tac boxes. What I’m doing is leveraging off of the leaning people already have to trust science. They don’t question it at all.”

‘The Anatomy of the Muse’ features pieces from Mapes’ acclaimed ‘Dutch Master’ series, in which he recreated iconic Dutch masterpieces from the 16th century.

“The Dutch navy accompanied the West Indies trading company,” says Mapes. “So I spent time researching and finding out what was important at the time; which is why you’ll find coffee, tea, tobacco, as well as rope and other nautical references in these pieces.” 

Also prominent in the collection is Mapes’ series of 1950s pin-up girls, the majority of which are modeled after the iconic work of artist Gil Elvgren who essentially created these icons – these mythological females of the 1950s – to sell, in large part, commercial products. 

 “He had no idea about the power he had, or the damage he was doing to women at the time, who couldn’t keep up with their husband’s idea of the perfect woman. They weren’t even paintings of real people,” Mapes explains. “What’s interesting about this work is that it was suggestive, playful, erotic, but it wasn’t really sexual. It was the Trojan horse into mainstream culture where it was acceptable.” 

The ‘biographical DNA’ chosen for his pin-up series takes a modern, more plastic turn from the raw, rustic materials used in the Dutch series, featuring acrylic nails, false eyelashes, cosmetic applicators, and artificial flowers – which Mapes says is symbolic of femininity and early fertility at an almost cellular level. 

“I’m trying to humanize a mythological subject by including suggested aspects of her life, of having access to these things that made up these portraits. I’m trying to find balance, where it’s not overtly one thing or another. At a glance, my work references a chemistry lab with shelves, alongside medicine cabinets, it has this a cosmetic reference… in this case, and particularly in the work in this new series, I’m mixing in elements that are suggested to be connected to the subject but are in fact connected to me in various ways,” Mapes explains. “X-rays of myself or family, or assistants, play a big role. In this series, I took photos of several part time female assistants, cut them up and blended them in. I’ve also incorporated a childhood doll, human hair, baby teeth… which may sound like somewhat disturbing elements, but it’s not my intention to create shock value.”

The fascinating thing about Mapes’ artwork is that it provides viewers with two different experiences; from afar, his pieces are intriguing, pixellated reinterpretations of familiar works found throughout art history. But look closer, and the mesmerising chaos that makes up his fragmented portraits reveal intimate details and ideas about his subjects.  

As Aristotle famously said, “the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.”