Imprints on the human body

BFA student Melissa Smallridge’s new Union Gallery exhibit explores the nature of tattoos and body markings, both visible and invisible

Artist Melissa Smallridge uses examples from her friends to create the pieces of work in her exhibit Stories in Ink.
Artist Melissa Smallridge uses examples from her friends to create the pieces of work in her exhibit Stories in Ink.
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Photo: 
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We all have markings on us, even if we don’t know it. They’re our own tattoos.

In Melissa Smallridge’s exhibit Stories in Ink, she exhibits her very own tattoo tale, along with those of her friends. Her space shows a juxtaposition where conversation points between the patchwork-like pieces on the walls of the Project Room.

Quotes are hung in thick black frames next to each painting. They hint at the individualized back stories that lie at the heart of each work.

Smallridge’s collection speaks to the culture of tattoo art, an interest which began around the time she received her first tattoo at age 17.

Her artist statement explains that she was motivated “to explore the relationship these body modifications have on the identities of those they mark.”

“Each work in this series reveals a different aspect of identity, individuality and self-expression,” Smallridge’s artist statement reads.

A small book of explanatory quotes for each piece emphasizes the emotional aspect of the exhibit.

“When I lost my parents I wanted to get a tattoo that reminded me of them,” declares a line from “Rosary.” The painting consists of a cropped section of an upper torso.

A shoulder and arm dressed in a white collared shirt takes up most of the painting, with the shirt unbuttoned to expose a black rosary tattoo on what would be the flesh of the subject.

Yet, Smallridge declines to give the viewer the literal skin of the subject.

Instead, the canvas of the painting replaces the body. The rosary is literally tattooed onto the fabric of the painting. Perhaps this absence of body allows the viewer to step into the canvas of the painting and form their own relationship with the tattoo.

Not only does Smallridge’s work vary in subject matter, it also varies in choice of material, with the use of oil paints on wood panels, an effect which leaves the pieces shining as if still wet.

“Reborn” illustrates the strength of the oil on wood material choice.

It depicts a phoenix glowing in red and orange flames. “Ashes exist because things burn,” reads the accompanying text. “They are remnants of what once was but is not anymore.” Tinged with blue edges, the phoenix defies the fire of destruction.

While each of Smallridge’s paintings present only a section of the subject’s body, her large-scale wood print is the only piece that shows a single, unified body.

A girl, with tattoos on her arms and legs, rests on her back facing the viewer. Yet sunglasses obscure her gaze. Smallridge deprives the viewer access to the girl’s eyes, and in doing so, preserves a sense of privacy.

Using nameless, fragmented bodies, Smallridge’s exhibit challenges the viewer to take the place of the subject and, literally or figuratively, confront his or her own personal tattoos.

Melissa Smallridge’s Stories in Ink is on exhibit in the Project Room of Union Gallery until Feb. 8.

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