Back in 2006 when I first wrote about her work, portrait artist Patrisha McLean was tired of her Flower Girls series, ready to abandon the project for a new one. At the time, I didn’t think her portraits could get any better, and she may have agreed. But she persevered with the series, proving us both wrong.
Instead, McLean explored new territory, and the results are breathtaking. Like the masterful artist she is, McLean has plumbed the depths of the Flower Girls concept, and in doing so explored the deepest parts of our collective psyche.
Hers is a remarkable photographic journey that begins in photo realism (the language of journalism) and ends in Symbolism, the language of dreams. Symbolist painters, such as Gustave Moreau, Gustav Klimt, Odilon Redon, and Edvard Munch used mythological and dream imagery. Often, like McLean, they created a timeless atmosphere of utter stillness and silence.
Though she began her career as a journalist, McLean’s editorial photography revolves around The Maiden’s Voyage, the mythical coming-of-age of young women. McLean’s portraits ask "Will the Flower Girl survive her passage to adulthood, with its impending ‘de-flowering?’" Parents have worried about this since the dawn of mankind, so The Maiden’s Voyage is a common story.
McLean’s 2008 portrait Lydia with Antique Mirror (above) sums up The Maiden’s Voyage (or perhaps The Heroine’s Journey) in one lovely stroke. Lydia explores an unknown forest, surrounded by vegetation that seems about to consume her. But unlike Clara with Rhododendrons (2006), Lydia doesn’t look to the viewer for help. Reaching the center of the forest, Lydia has stumbled upon herself. She’s traversed her own labyrinth, a one-way path to the center of her psyche.
In historical myths, a maiden was often seduced by a god in disguise (i.e. Leda and the Swan) at her coming-of-age. In modern versions, the seduction is watered-down, and the maiden simply loses consciousness at her transition, as in Sleeping Beauty or The Wizard of Oz. The growing importance of the unconscious dream-state in McLean’s work becomes clear when it’s viewed in serial fashion:
Above (Nora with Old Roses, 2006), an alert young girl is compared to roses. The message is simple. Nora is a rose. This is realism.
In Riley With Old Roses, Dreaming (2006), McLean tentatively approaches Symbolism. She depicts Riley’s dream, but we
aren’t in the dream. We must guess at the dream’s contents, represented by the multi-toned roses swirling around Riley’s head.
In Becca with Summer Flowers (2008), McLean has taken the plunge. She’s immersed in her subject’s dream, and so are we. Becca has taken control, raising her arms and summoning flying flowers to do her bidding, as one might summon the elements. This is Symbolism. McLean’s portrait seems to take place in aboriginal dream time, an atmosphere of timelessness, utter stillness and silence.
Although McLean’s work retains elements of her photo-journalism (who’d expect the gaunt Flower Girl above, with her world-weary stare and her choker of roses?), she now works largely in the realm of the Symbolic.
Never shy about exploring the dark side, McLean has created a stunning dualistic illustration of the Sleeping Beauty myth. A daytime Sleeping Beauty is paired with her haunting doppelganger, a vampirish nocturnal beauty. Together, these portraits make me wonder whether Sleeping Beauty will survive her journey to adulthood, awakening in the light as a woman. Or will she remain as adults would have her, forever a little girl, in stasis and in the dark?
McLean’s most surprising new portrait may be Harper with Old Roses (2008). There’s something unexpected in this image. With her sensuous face, claw-like nails, and explosion of roses, this is a rapturous Flower Girl who’s come of age, innocent no longer.
I think Eliza with Peonies and Pearls best sums up McLean’s new work. The Flower Girls are at the end of their dangerous journey, no longer lost in a forbidding forest. Some look directly and knowingly at the viewer.
While the leash of the world still tugs at them (every girl wears a choker or necklace) the young women are now masters of their universe. Individuation is complete. The Flower Girls have found themselves, become whole, and blossomed.
Patrisha McLean’s daughter entered college in 2008, and I think her maternal relief, as well as her pride in a job well done, are evident in the Flower Girls series. There’s a touch of Botticelli’s Venus in the latest Flower Girl images, a sense of joy in presenting the world with a lovely, newly-formed young woman. By chronicling The Maiden’s Voyage as her daughter grew, McLean has given voice to parents everywhere.
All photographs copyright 2011 by Patrisha McLean, reproduced with her permission. Image resolution has been lowered for online publication. To contact McLean or see more of her work, click here: PatrishaMcLean.com
Article copyright 2013 by Ann Marcaida.