Recently graduating from Ontario College of Art and Design University in Drawing and Painting, Michelle Peraza has a previous degree from Western University in Classical Studies and World Religions.
She focuses on large-scale painted portraiture.
As a second-generation Latin American Canadian, themes of ethnicity, origins, culture, tradition, skin colour, value systems, customs, identity, migration, integration, and familial hierarchy and bonds raise vital questions. Michelle paints individuals close to her; people often ignored and unseen in the history of the painted portrait, particularly the Latino race/ethnicity. The use of the male sitter stimulates conversations, concepts, perceptions, and realities of the patriarchy.
Michelle constructs an interpretation of the individual through a meticulous point system and linear comprehension of the face. High realism allows the character, ethos, psychology, identity and appearance of the person to manifest. Aluminum forms the substrate alluding and emphasizing masculinity and the working-class. Large scale provides a status as well as time for acknowledgment given the individuals frequent invisibility.
MultiplicityTO: Before attending OCADu, you attended Western for Classical Studies and World Religion. In your art, do you draw inspiration from your previous studies?
Michelle Peraza: I definitely am influenced by my background in the Classics. My appreciation increased during my time at Western. I think studying this material influenced me to approach portraits more traditionally and realistically. I am also influenced by the “bust” composition in classical sculpture and approach most of my portraits in an almost bust-like quality, focusing on the head and part of the shoulders.
MTO: Patria Potestas is your latest collection, a series of painted portraits of Latino men in your life. A very personal and very confrontational collection which at its heart explores ethnicity, culture, identity and can address ideas of migration, diaspora, family bonds and hierarchy. What were the inspirations for starting this project?
MP: The summer after my first year at OCADu, I took some time in the summer to visit my dad’s family in Costa Rica. I was motivated to paint the themes I saw here: skin colour, racial tensions, and what happens to culture when immigration and integration occurs. I also noticed a dominating theme and ethos of Latino culture, that was further emphasized when I was actually in a Latin American country: patriarchy. I returned to Costa Rica the summer before thesis, intending to photograph the men in my father’s family, beginning with my grandpa and working down by age; a succession and therefore a hierarchy of men. The result is my series of dominated “male head” paintings on aluminum sheeting.
MTO: Why portraits? What were you aiming to recreate or represent through large scale and realistic (yet stylized) portraits?
MP: Going back to my Classical background, I think a truthful and beautiful subject to paint are humans, especially as portraits. I think the face says everything; the person’s story, identity, race, age, humanity, everything. It’s in their eyes, skin, lines and form. What I am interested in the most beyond representing race, culture, societal structures and hierarchies is just giving time to reinterpret a particular face into a painting. My intention is to attempt to honour the integrity and truth of the sitter’s face. I think it is the most complicated thing to paint. It is difficult to give justice to the face and to bring life to a painting. In respect to stylization, I do agree, they are not paintings in a natural mundane setting, I purposely photograph them in a formal setting. I am not interested in the “in-action” figurative representation, but of a formal composition.
Oil on Aluminium Composite
48" x 60"
"My intention is to attempt to honour the integrity and truth of the sitter’s face."
MTO: Why have you chosen to paint on large aluminum sheets as opposed to more traditional surfaces such as canvas?
MP: Aluminum was first given to me by my dad. It was a recycled material from a building site. I painted a portrait of him on it. Entering thesis and given my concept, I thought this would be a substrate that would really bring together my intention; a patriarchal Latino lineage. Also, aluminum connotes a working class/building material, something that resonated more with the people I was going to paint and continues to be relevant to my other sitters.
MTO: Can you speak to the materiality of your working surface? Do you notice any technical differences with painting on a metal vs. canvas or other traditional painting surfaces?
MP: In respect to the materiality, aluminum falls more in line with panel painting but lacks any absorption. It is definitely a more slippery substrate, but the reasons I like using it is that it doesn’t absorb like canvas and it’s easier to mix colours directly on the aluminum.
MTO: The etymology behind the Latin Patria Potestas is inherently political and legal, with the translation “power of a father” referring to legal privilege over property and authority over dependents. Are you repurposing this term for your collection? And if so, how? What is the significance of language in this series?
MP: I chose this title from my time at Western. I took several classes on law and legislature in the Greek and Roman empire. This particular legal code always resonated with me. During my thesis research I saw parallels and continuity in the power/dominance of the male head in Latino culture. I think the power of the male head and male dominance is not particular to Latino culture. Especially now, we are seeing an uprising in the media about male violence through dominance in the workplace and in relationships. So I think studying the “male head” in my own family is a relevant topic, and is a part of the story of this series of paintings.
MTO: Within the context of our publication, we are repurposing the word “multiplicity” to meaning living, working, or being in more than one form. We seek to transgress boundaries, especially pertaining through identity. Through the artists in our publication we are showing how multiplicity exists in the messages pursued, the work created, or even down to the materials used. How do you relate to this concept?
MP: Perhaps I relate to this concept in that I am pushing the boundaries on the painted portraiture. I paint in a very traditional style but on an untraditional substrate, I am a female painter painting the male identity, and I am a second-generation Canadian painting the Latin American face and perspective.
Beyond other topics I have talked about here, I am trying to paint the Latino face in the traditional, classical sense. Meaning in a way the Latino has never been considered in formal painted portraiture; a subject, historically speaking, reserved for the upper classes.