Perched on a wooden stool inside her McGuffey Art Center studio, Megan Elizabeth “Mae” Read looks around the room at her sketches—a roughly defined nude male figure, a sequence of grayscale charcoal portraits including one of a little girl with butterfly face paint—clustered together near the floor.
“You know,” she says before taking a pause, “if you stare long enough at anyone, you can fall in love with them. They’re just so beautiful.”
But viewers who venture to McGuffey’s Sarah B. Smith Gallery this month to see “Megan Elizabeth Read: Recent Works in Oil,” should know that it won’t take long to fall in love with her hyperrealist work, and the longer they stare, the deeper they’ll fall.
Read, 36, has made art off and on since she was a sensitive kid living on the edge of a North Garden cow farm and self-soothing with a sketchbook. She drew often in her Waldorf School classes and as a teenager took painting lessons from local artist Karen Shea Silverman. But that’s the extent of her formal training.
Art is therapeutic for Read; she says it’s how she copes with her states of mind, with whatever’s floating around in her subconscious. She’ll envision an image, and by the time she’s done drawing or painting it, she begins to understand the symbolism and what she worked out emotionally and mentally in the image. She works mostly from photographs and sometimes (but not always) uses herself as a model.
The series of paintings on view at McGuffey builds on themes from last year’s “Drawings Old and New” show at the downtown Mudhouse. A number of Read’s earlier charcoal drawings—which look like black and white photographs at first glance—leave the figure unfinished, or obscured. One drawing shows a woman seated on the ground, nude except for a necklace, a pair of Nike track shoes and a piece of fabric covering her head and face; one of her arms is unrendered, negative space against a black background, something Read calls an expression of “feeling like an incomplete human.”
Leaving part of the drawing unrendered is also a nod to what Read says is the pleasurable, rather mysterious process of transforming charcoal and paper into what appears to be flesh and fabric. Read achieves this same effect in her paintings. “Becoming” depicts a woman half-wrapped in an aubergine robe, eyes covered with an Adidas terrycloth sweatband, holding an onion in one hand, and “Furling” features the same woman’s head and face draped in gauzy fabric. Some areas are in black and white, while others are fully colored in.
“It feels magical, that these simple materials can start looking like the thing itself,” Read says.
She points out that while her work is hyperrealism, she glosses over (or leaves out entirely) plenty of details—body hair, skin texture, pores. She chooses to obscure eyes and faces with fabrics and positioning; the whole person is never completely visible. It’s a “building up” to reality and not reality itself, she says.
What Read chooses to leave out is as significant as what she chooses to include, begging a close look at the subject while also denying the viewer ultimate closeness. Her paintings balance on the precipice of extraordinary intimacy, stopping just shy of the kind of closeness that makes Read—and most of us—uncomfortable. They represent, Read says, both a craving for and fear of vulnerability and being seen.
Read painted a number of objects for the McGuffey show as well—the many-layered, bitter onion that the woman holds in “Becoming” swathed in the fabric from “Furling”; a tiny, delicate indigo bunting bird and a subsequent painting of its severed wings and twine; the aubergine robe; her own baby cup—that possess the same amount of intimacy as her paintings of people. Everyone has an item they’d carry across the country and back, the items they’d be heartbroken to lose. These are Read’s, and they conjure the viewer’s own.
It’s evidence of how the most ordinary things are often the most dramatic, filled with meaning simply because of their proliferation in our everyday lives. “Layers,” the painting of the brown-skinned onion hanging in white gauzy fabric nailed into a dark gray wall, appears to Read as just that: an onion, in fabric, on a wall. One viewer told her it reminded them of a testicle; another saw a breast.
That tender connection, whether it’s vocalized in the gallery or kept quiet, is exciting to Read. “I feel like I can share that with them, and as someone who doesn’t feel super-connected to people a lot of the time, it’s a nice thing” to feel, she says.
Read says her work is “representative of my trying to figure out how to be in the world, my struggle with figuring out who I am. There’s a level of empathy that you start feeling for people when you spend that much time looking at them, that I was hoping I would be able to get for myself,” she says. And while she hasn’t exactly fallen in love with herself yet, she’s getting there. “There’s a level of empathy I feel for myself that I didn’t [feel] before, for sure,” she says.