PENCILLED IN – Shannen Vinent draws her life on the line

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At just 17, up-and-coming fine artist Shannen Vinent is having her picture ‘Plastic Surgery’ included in the Ministry of Culture’s collection after it won first prize at the competitive exhibition for young artists last March.

The sizeable painting, solely and patiently executed in coloured pencils, is part of a series that aims at artistically discussing the hot topic of ‘Beauty Obsession’, and what the young painter describes as the unrealistic lengths western media standards are conditioning people to go to by imposing upon their bodies drastic procedures to change their appearance in a bid to appease consumerism-spun insecurities.

Plastic Surgery

Besides the winning painting that visualises the fragmentation of self-esteem by splitting the portrait in vertical strips in a flattened concertina effect, Shannen exhibited another one of the same size and similar theme. It features a bare midriff crunched up in the squeeze of the tape measure coiled around it like a snake, rendered down to each last detail of the metric grading in black marks on the dirty yellow ribbon that pictorially contrasts with and constrains the golden skin, that is, to add insult to injury, cruelly pinched by a laundry peg.

She explains the genesis of her winning entry: at first, she digitally projected the strip effect with the help of Photoshop, starting from a real photograph of a model. Then, she transposed it on canvas according to guidelines, to concretise the idea of broken self-image. “It is important to notice how the lines are more dramatic and closer to each other on the side that is being operated on with the Botox syringe,” Shannen says. “That is meant to visualise not just the intensity of the pain, but the inner brewing of conflicting emotions and the sorrow the patient must have been going through while deciding whether going ahead with cosmetic surgery.”

Beauty Obsession

The pictorial effect relies simply on accurate pencil strokes, although the result is one akin to light-touch acrylics, due to the diligence with which the artist works stroke’s direction and pressure, and the energy spent in building layer after layer of colour, shading and dimension with different tones to achieve the perfect hue.

Pencil is the medium Shannen feels more at ease with and portraiture is where she exploits it the best both in colour and charcoal, although she shuns away from pompous formal portraits where the sitter just sits. Instead, she chooses to freeze them in natural poses while they are busy living their lives in what she calls ‘mundane acts’, and where she has the perfect excuse to analyse the way various emotions can surface in facial expression, and more precisely, how said expressions can be effectively reproduced in drawing.

Shannen declares herself a fan of Christian Hook’s work, who wasn’t her school teacher but she admires nonetheless for having become world famous against all odds of his hailing from ‘peripheral’ Gibraltar, a true accomplishment in her young imagination. Christian’s research into depicting the passage of time inspired her to deconstruct the image, in her case not to capture physical movement, as much as the outer expression of inner turmoil.

She is also a keen admirer of Shane Dalmedo’s ‘boxes’, a table-top sized metaphysical mix of sculpture, drawing and installation featuring dolls and dollhouse furniture and accessories. Applying this concept on the bi-dimensional surface of her canvases, Shannen researches dynamic and intimate family scenes that incorporate furniture and still nature.

While the human figure remains central to her composition and expressions are studied in the greatest detail, the décor is reproduced with a fine eye for textures, from the soft smooth haberdashery of an armchair to the creases of an unmade bed and the knock-on-wood clean lines of a bedstead and bedside table. She often indulges in minimalism, a style she’s keen to explore soon, so background details are just sketched, like the pottery in the relaxed after-dinner scene, where family members are busy chatting with cups of coffee and bottles of wines on the table, while the surroundings bloom with abstract posies, picture frames, lampshades and drapery.

The best one in this series is a bright pastiche of tropical hues, block colours and bold lines, scribbled in haste with the determination of a toddler but the technique of a talented artist: a young family sits at the birthday table, cake and all in the foreground heralding the happy moment, with the child in full view and the adults just sketched up to their shoulders, their faces purposely evading the composition.

A toddler girl is the subject of further two delicate works, one depicting her in her stroller with a spoon in her hand, the whole picture almost shade-free to achieve some poster effect, and slathered in pastel colours with predominance of pink to bring out her sky-blue eyes, and the second, centring on bath time, with the girl’s smooth skin in the foreground and her captivating cheeky grin as she coos for the camera.

Shannen dabbles in clay sculpture too: simple but effective abstract structures inspired by exotic flowers, one curiously reminiscent of an hybrid between the carnivorous Rafflesia arnoldi and a bunch of lotus pods (that should come with a trigger warning for trypophobics!), the second more linear, elegant and classic with its crossing of curved slabs of clay and its pearly enamel fashioned in a nestling embrace.

Shannen Vinent

With an eclectic foundation to begin with, Shannen is about to take off on a fine arts adventure at university, once her A levels are done and dusted – this summer, as they’re already pencilled in.

words | Elena Scialtiel