IN the Spotlight: Lauren E. Peters

Lauren E. Peters' Studio IN Wilmington

Lauren Peters is not one thing. This is fortunate for her because Peters has painted her own image almost exclusively for the last three years. I met Peters in the parking lot at the Delaware Contemporary, so she could escort me to her studio. In this month of early darkness and never-ending rain, the Warholian colors of her workspace hit me like a jolt of vitamin C. It isn’t just the high-voltage hues of her portraits, alternately watchful and avoidant in their consideration of me, the viewer; colors vibrates everywhere. They zing from her artist’s palette to a display of wigs and costumed mannequins that populate the corners. Standing next to me wearing black and neutrals, Peters tells me in a soft voice that she was a costumer for the City Theater Company. She doesn’t have to tell me that the self she is referencing in her paintings is not the one she is projecting at the moment. The contradiction is the point.

“You don’t need to be one thing or another,” she explains, “You can be masculine and feminine at the same time. Push. Pull.” This contrast, egged on by her sense of color, provides the tension in her work.

There are other paintings in the room. Older pieces. Quiet studies of plaster casts of classic figural sculpture that you only notice after taking in the current paintings. What is the evolution? How did this new body of work come to be? 

Blame it on love. After years of living on her own, Lauren Peters moved in with her boyfriend, now husband, four years ago. She knew instinctively that she needed to carve out a space for herself— a tradition straight from Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own. Peters studied painting at college in New England and later at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Art in Philadelphia but had not prioritized her art after leaving school. Instead, she had come home to Wilmington and, in a cluster of jobs for small businesses, she found herself becoming a Jill-of-all-trades. It took a life/relationship change for Peters to prioritize painting and to honor her calling by leasing space at the Delaware Contemporary. The museum gives its artists the opportunity to display work in one of their galleries each year. Because Peters had nothing current to show, she used the enticement of a May 2016 exhibit as motivation to create the necessary body of work.

Peters doesn’t romanticize the decision to paint self-portraits. Already predisposed to paint figures, she found she was her own most convenient model—her face a screen on which to project infinite possibility. I pressed her for more. The wigs? Was it a chance to dress up and perform? “No,” she insists. She needed something other than her own brown hair to make the work pop. “I look for fun. What appeals to me.” Peters works from photos that she takes herself and which are for reference only. She hates having her picture taken. Ah, photos. She is leading me to the question I wanted to ask. Surely these self-portraits have something to say about our current selfie-obsessed culture? This, Peters admits to with a smile and shows me the earlier works in the series in which she is careful to include “the selfie arm,” the delta of shoulder that is a dead-giveaway that your sister didn’t take the photo. It is the ultimate game of peek-a-boo. What do we reveal? What do we hide? 

The latest paintings in the series are larger, more costumed, and given to story. Gone is the selfie arm and the close range. Peters now directs our gaze from across a room to figures that have greater range of movement, more curvature of the spine. As in the earlier works in the series, bold fields of flat color play against realistic rendering and pattern. Peters presents herself as an emboldened goddess or a turned-face spy. In one painting, Peters poses as Omphale, the queen who enslaved Hercules. The myth goes that Omphale demanded that Hercules dress up in women’s clothing to spin yarn while she wore his lionskins and fashioned a club. Peters, the artist, commands that she not be pigeonholed into any one role, but at the same time, Peter’s Omphale, the slavemaster, charges viewers to step outside our own comfort zones and “not be one thing.”

A little over three years after painting her first self-portrait, Peters is still going strong with her subject matter and has no plans to stop. Peters won a 2018 Delaware Division of the Arts Emerging Artist Fellowship to further her self-portrait work. “Emerging” may be an understatement: she boasts nine shows on her curriculum vitae for 2018 alone. A culminating show, Ship of Theseus, where Peters will display a progression of seventeen self-portraits, will open on Friday, December 7 from 5-7 PM at the Mezzanine Gallery, located on the second floor of the Carvel State Office Building, 820 N. French Street, Wilmington. Her exhibit will continue through December. Details, including a video of the artist can be found on the gallery’s website.