Artist Barbara Warren brings together ancient Greek myth and the contemporary medium of digital photography to startling effect in her solo exhibition, “Slaying Medusa: A Greek Myth Retold Through Self-Portraits,” opening at the Arts Council of Princeton this Saturday, March 16. when a reception for the artist will take place from 4 to 6 p.m. The show runs through April 13, a short run, so don’t miss it.
If you recall, the Greek myth relates the story of Perseus who sets out to slay the fearsome Medusa, one of three Gorgon sisters, so gruesome that all living creatures turn to stone at the very sight of them. Perseus travels land and sea in his search aided by the gods Athena and Hermes, sent by Zeus to help him. Athena lends him her shield, polished bright as a mirror. Hermes lends him his sword. He tricks Medusa’s sisters, stealing the one eye they share between them and ultimately slays Medusa. When he cuts off Medusa’s head, the beautiful winged horse, Pegasus, springs from her severed neck
In Ms. Warren’s retelling, she interprets the narrative through a series of self-portraits. To do so, she melds her identity with the persona of each of the myth’s main characters, becoming, in turn, Perseus, Medusa, Hermes, Zeus.
“Storytelling goes back to the Greeks and Barbara is doing what the ancient Greeks did with a contemporary medium and in a unique way by self portraiture,” says curator Ricardo Barros, the show’s curator, who is also a photographer and a member of the Arts Council’s gallery advisory committee.
“The photographs propel the story forward,” says Mr. Barros, “There is an unexpected rhythm to Barbara’s approach; her expressive portraits convey not only the drama and adventure of Perseus’ quest, but also the psychological journey undertaken when one commits to confronting one’s fears.”
Mr. Barros suggested Barbara for an exhibition because of the quality of her work and because of the value of a solo exhibition for an emerging photographer. As a rule, the Arts Council favors group shows, giving exposure to multiple artists. A solo exhibition is a rare honor. “Barbara’s work deserves to be seen,” says Mr. Barros. “It will have a significant impact on those who see it and a significant impact on Barbara’s career.”
The project started as an assignment from Mr. Barros, Ms. Warren’s teacher and mentor, to represent the myth of Perseus and Medusa. With no instructions beyond the subject matter, the artist was free to take off in any direction. The resulting sequence of images were shot using infra red which requires considerable post-processing. A few of the images are composite. All are black and white. Alongside each photograph, the story of Perseus and Medusa is told via selected texts from the book Book of Greek Myths by Ingri and Edgar Parin D’Aulaire borrowed from the Princeton Public Library.
Putting herself in front of the lens was a learning experience, says Ms. Warren, who makes her living as a professional photographer with portraits and weddings. “I realized what it is like for my clients! But once I got into it, I really enjoyed it. Some of it was great fun, like portraying the Gorgon Sisters and Medusa. Much of it was very challenging, especially portraying the young men in the story as well as the god Zeus. It took around 700 shots to get Perseus’s jawline just right.”
“I’ve never liked photographs of myself. The camera paralyzed me; I ‘turned to stone’ in front of it, just as I had seen others do when I photographed them. This is why I chose self-portraiture to tell this story,” says the artist. “We all have our own Medusa to slay,” she says. “Our culture’s premium on youth and physical beauty, for example, dampens our self-esteem with unrealistic standards of adequacy. But there are many Medusas, each as intimidating as the next, and every one can turn their challenger to stone. This is why we sing praises of those who successfully confront their fears.”
Turning the camera upon herself helped the photographer tackle her own fears and judgments. “My need to be pretty for the camera disappeared as over the course of several months, I photographed myself as each one of the characters. I had the power to be young, old, ugly, frightful, and handsome,” she says, of the year-long project.
Many of the images evoke the androgynous actress Tilda Swinton. Others bring famed photographer Cindy Sherman to mind. Unlike Sherman, however, Warren does not go in for props. “I didn’t want to stage these images but to use facial expression, pose, angle, and lighting to portray character,” she says.
“The significant difference between Sherman and Warren.” says Mr. Barros, “is that the latter’s work uses psychological persona as opposed to the physical persona that is in Sherman’s hallmark. “Barbara is engaged in a dialogue with artists who precede her by thousands of years,” says Mr. Barros. “Her work here is creative and highly crafted.”
Born in Kentucky, Ms. Warren has lived most of her life in Bucks County. Her work has been published in B&W magazine, Photographic Magazine, and American Vision: Images by the Best of Today’s Amateur Nature Photographers. She’s garnered several awards including Best Body of Work 2011 at the Phillips Mill Photographic Exhibition, Best of Show 2010 at the Phillips Mill Photographic Exhibition, and Best of Show in Voices of the Marsh 2010. This is her first solo show.
“Slaying Medusa: A Greek Myth Retold Through Self-Portraits” runs March 16 through April 13 in the Paul Robeson Center for the Arts at 102 Witherspoon Street. Barbara Warren and curator Ricardo Barros will discuss the exhibition on Saturday, April 6 at 2 p.m. For more information, call (609) 924-8777 or visit: artscouncilofprinceton.org; for more on Barbara Warren, visit: www.barbarawarren.com.