A painting by Australian artist Cherry Hood hangs in the hallway of my home. It depicts a young girl, aged six or seven, her head half turned to gaze back at the viewer. The left side of her face is illuminated by a silvery unseen light source. The other half is washed with a shadow that gathers into darkness below her neck. Her body is obscured. The child is beautiful: full-lipped, with large almond-shaped eyes. It’s not her beauty, however, which makes the portrait so compelling; it’s the ambiguous nature of her gaze. She fixes the viewer with a look that can be read as fear or defiance, depending on what the observer is inclined to see. Hood’s capacity to capture the ambiguity of children’s gazes — to make that ambiguity visible — is the hallmark of her extraordinary talent. The more I’ve studied the painting in my hallway, though, the less I see it as a portrait of a child and the more I’m inclined to see it as a portrait of myself or, indeed, of any other adult viewer.
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- Presumed Innocent: Picturing Childhood
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