Reforming beauty and purpose
Old paintbrushes receiving a resurrected purpose, a birth of new life through art, has been the ethos of San Francisco-based artist Rebecca Szeto. As she grabs and brings them into her workspace, she dots their bodies with fine details of paint until she slowly transforms them into images of Old Masters’ works and revered portraits in history. Since 1999, Szeto has dedicated her research, time, and artistic evolution to ‘Paintbrush Portraits,’ dipping her sculptures into different narratives as her timeline changes.
The series indulges in the magic of reforming beauty and value. ‘I use humble, end-of-life materials inspired by my past experience as a faux finisher and Diego Velazquez’s 17th-century painting Las Meninas,’ the artist shares. As the paintbrushes become the canvas of Szeto’s art – always flanked with her artistic eye for fine details – they transition from forgotten objects to covetable collections, anchoring history, both personal and book-based.‘These lady-like portraits are a playful strategy I use to draw the viewer into a more refined conversation about the nature of the work – in slowing down and observing the ordinary, however small, the most profound things are discovered,’ she writes.
images from Rebecca Szeto
Slowness at pace might be a foreigner in the modern age, but advocates of the unhurried lifestyle and tempo still push through, and Szeto hops on this wagon by encouraging her viewers to scrutinize the bundles the bristles have formed throughout the years and the wistful life the portraits savor and share. ‘The action of whittling serves as a metaphor for reducing something to its core value or essence. These works pay homage to a sensibility and vitality found in the Old Masters ‘works,’ the artist shares.
Rather than focusing on the aesthetic, Szeto infuses her series with reminders of the social classes, the communities that climb and fall from the established – and oftentimes blurred and unspoken, unfortunately – social ladder. ‘The repetitive pace of whittling allows me time to reflect more directly on the idiosyncrasies of each individual brush in relation to the entanglement of thoughts related to class structures, labor, and leisure, invisible labor,’ the artist shares.
The images Szeto has shared of her series only form a selection of her larger body of work. She narrates how the first two editions dealt only with art history while the third touched upon lost, obscure, and impactful stories of women across history and geography. ‘The more recent ones have taken on a less narrative slant towards a more mediated translation of conceptual interests,’ she writes.
artist rebecca szeto repurposes paintbrushes into women and art history sculptures
Transformative art style
Szeto knits poetry with her exploration of the material and immaterial, a process she calls ‘transformative and often humorous synthesis of confounded expectations.’ Her process-based practice toys with everyday objects and materials she locks between her hands to sculpt and spin to her benefit. Aside from adopting the mundane nuances, the human condition and post-human political climate also infiltrates her work as she highlights the overlooked and marginalized groups and thoughts to invite viewers to ruminate on their contributions and actions to the communal landscape.
Working across disciplines of painting, object making, and installation, Szeto marries elements of memories and art history with her immediate surroundings, as seen in her ‘Paintbrush Portraits’ series. ‘I re-purpose humble, mass produced materials, and largely found rubbish to investigate the possibilities in re-forming beauty and value. In doing so, I set aside preconceived notions about the materials so I can freely explore their inherent qualities and investigate meaning beneath the surface, ‘ she shares.
girl with a pearl earring
the series indulges in the magic of reforming beauty and value.
these works pay homage to a sensibility and vitality found in the old masters’ works
repurposing paintbrushes into women and art history sculptures
name: Paintbrush Portraits
artist: Rebecca Szeto
based in: San Francisco, California
matthew burgos | design boom
May 23, 2022