Understanding Narrative Through "The Gaze"

Examining “the gaze,” or rather, the way we look at a subject, and how a subject looks back at us, remains one of the most intriguing ways to understand an artwork’ narrative. The Mona Lisa’s enigmatic, direct gaze at the viewer and Vermeer’s female subjects’ lonely, diverted eyes have captivated art historians for centuries, giving insight into psychology and social relationships in eras past.

All of Haley Hasler’s powerful self-portraits contain the same quirky yet confrontational gaze in vibrant scenes that explore her role as a mother and a provider. Works like Portrait as Sunday Brunch offer both humor and a sense of honesty; she carries a live chicken in one hand and donuts in another, while still lifes of food adorn her dress down to the floor. Her three daughters’ eyes are equally meaningful in their disagreement with one another. One daughter looks up at Hasler, one looks to the floor, and one looks out toward viewers.

Jack Gerber’s paintings capture both a male and female gaze in works like The Lovers, where even with closed eyes, two faces are angled toward and engaged with one another. He depicts intimacy and sensuality in every pairing, including in situations where the man appears to be watching his unknowing female counterpart from behind (in The Guard Dog and News of the Day, for instance).

Taking a more somber, introspective approach to her work, Katie O’Hagan paints self-portraits in which her gaze unmistakably reveals sad, lonely contemplation. She stares coldly in a mirror while cutting her hair from its roots in Reflection. Less decisively, she looks toward soft window light, in Listen, with concern and uneasiness. In Suspension, she looks upward while lying down in bed. Maybe she’s hopeful, or maybe she’s feeling the weight of the ceiling above her. No matter the case, one cannot look away.

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