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"Emoticanon" by Sylvia Tomakyo-Peters
The Concept: The name of the series "Emoticanon" is a good description of its essence, in the most simple terms. The title is a combination of the words "emoticon," a representation of a facial expression made using various keyboard symbols and letters, and "canon" defined as a group of works (visual or literary art for example) which are judged to be of the highest quality, setting the standards by which others are judged. 
Normally I'm a text-oriented person. I have less experience with strictly visual arts, though my writing is primarily digital-born and thus deals not only with textuality, but also with the visual aspects of viewing text on a screen. When trying to figure out a way to incorporate text into this image-based project, the idea of emoticons immediately popped into my head. Emoticons are both textual and visual, they are read and viewed at the same time. For me, the use of an emoticon in a text, tweet, or any message, is to provide a context. An emoticon imbues pure text with the emotion of the speaker which can otherwise be easily lost. When we are unable to hear the tone of voice or see the expression of the speaker, it is easy to misinterpret, to mistake sarcasm for honesty. Emoticons are thus a powerful tool in our culture, providing a humanoid context in an otherwise digital setting. 
In the instance of "Emoticanon," the emoticons have been placed over details of faces from famous portraits throughout art history. In this way, the emoticons provide a new context to the paintings that appear, and disappear, underneath the enlarged outlines of the text. While many of the paintings are still recognizable, the emoticons obscure key parts, leaving only (loosely) the eyes and mouths visible and emphasizing new formations of positive space in the otherwise blank canvases. While emoticons can only provide us with so much information, they lack the nuances of say an entire detailed study of one's face, their bold smooth contours do provide a new easily recognizable message on top of the classic portraits, that of surprise, happiness, flirtatiousness, indecision. 

These interpretations can be, like an emoticon, an attempt to distill the emotion of the portrait down into a recognizable image-feeling, or, more interestingly, they can also be used to confuse in this new almost neo-Pop Art context. If an emoticon is so easily recognized as a particular emotion, and we can read an emotion relatively easily on the face in a portrait, what happens when these two expressions do not match? Which "wins" out in the end, the emoticon? the painting? a combination of both?

Normally in my writing I am interested in the transition that text is currently undergoing from the page to the screen. In this project however, the exercise is perhaps backwards, taking what was once on the screen and superimposing it over the canvas to provide a contemporary view of the famous masters. The conflation of digital-born text such as the emoticon and the much more physical and human practice of portrait painting is a microcosm of the cultural confusion we undergo every day as we transition away from more physical mediums and into the digital world. For me, watching this process is key to knowing how what we define as traditionally "human," "emotional," or any range of more organic concerns, metamorphose to become part of the digital world we have built around ourselves. 

The Process: The actual creation was relatively simple. Unfortunately the portraits I could use were limited in the end by the resolution of the images I could easily find. I did decide that I wanted works from a range of time periods, a kind of history of portraiture through contemporary eyes. 

I cropped the portraits down to a consistent size and then rotated the heads so that they would match the sideways orientation of most emoticons, I felt that this was especially important for bringing the paintings into the digital context. Next I created a large emoticon that would fit the facial expression of the chosen portrait. In some instances my choice was meant to accentuate the ironic and at other times I was trying to mimic the original expression of the portrait. This inconsistency is mainly because I was experimenting as I went along, and if I spent more time on the project I would like to create two separate series. Finally, the actual emoticons were made transparent and layered over the portraits so that the paintings would be exposed and actually create the emoticons themselves. In the end I created a total of nine images. I would be interested also in branching out from portraits into paintings and emoticons of other objects or texting abbreviations.
Paintings Used:

  • Giotto, Madonna and Child Enthroned
  • Botticelli, Birth of Venus
  • Rembrandt, Self Portrait 1659
  • Vermeer, Girl with a Pearl Earring
  • Manet, Olympia
  • Van Gogh, Self Portrait 1889
  • Picasso, Portrait of Dora Maar
  • Warhol, Marilyn
  • Close, Big Self Portrait
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