Heather Millar’s latest body of work, Second Chances, is a group of paired paintings based on mug shots of Australian women convicts from the early 20th century. The haunted faces of these women, convicted of crimes ranging from illegal abortion, bigamy, larceny, impersonation, prostitution, and even murder, both stare at us and are presented as subjects of observation and judgement. The inclusion of two portraits of each subject-one a profile and the other a head-on view-makes explicit the double position of the project, suggested in its title, even as it conforms to the convention of criminal documentation. The implication that these women are both viewed and viewers, that they might stare back at us even as we subject them to our evaluating gaze, is reinforced by their resemblance to conventional portraits, by the artist’s careful rendering of their features, and by the often aloof attitudes of the women in the pictures. Whether one reads their stares as dignified, accusatory, nonplussed, or merely dejected, these women are both emptied of personality and imbued with a powerful presence. And as paintings that picture photographs, Millar’s closely observed faces take on the character of the mask; they both embody subjective agency and stand witness to its unknowability.
One of the defining features of the mug shot is the way it makes visible a key aspect of the incarceration process, the ripping of a person from everyday life and their placement into a new and more confining framework, one that ultimately subjects them to constant observation under a cold, unflattering light. Millar’s detailed portraits partake of the naturalism of this photographic record. At the same time they call to mind other models, including medieval religious icons, with their gilded backgrounds. Each portrait is painted on a layer of gesso and copper; the pinkish glow that surrounds each face combines with Millar’s smooth brushstrokes to produce a softened image on a monochrome ground as featureless as that of the original photograph, but one that bathes its subject in warmth; even as these pictures pull their subjects from a context just as mug shots do, they do so for a different end. The artist clearly identifies with these outcast women, and her pictures elevate them, in a kind of tribute, as reminders of their very particular and harsh truth.
-Pan Wendt, Curator