The first painting you'll see on Elicia Donze's website is of Josie Packard, actor Joan Chen's character from David Lynch's Twin Peaks. She's sitting on a couch wearing a pout and hugging a book like it's the first time she's ever held a book. Her right hand, resting on top of the binding, is disproportionately large; three dismembered echoes of the hand float above it, each smaller than the last.
This clash of surrealism and photographic precision is the guiding principle of this series in which Donze, a Pittsburgh-based pop artist and magical realist, paints celebrities, pop culture characters, and icons in breathtaking detail and subtle, idiosyncratic flourishes. There's Lucas, Caleb McLaughlin's character from Stranger Things, sitting crossed legged on a shag rug with a mélange of comic book pages in the background; Serena Williams in a resplendent yellow dress wearing the wings of a giant monarch butterfly; a sullen Giancarlo Esposito as Gus Fring from Breaking Bad, in a black-and-white close-up, with his tinted pink glasses providing the only light. But it's Josie that serves as the best introduction to Donze's style, reflecting the washed-out weirdness of a waking dream that Lynch brought to Twin Peaks.
The series looks a lot like airbrushed photography, but Donze says it's closer to traditional painting than it seems. She identifies her subject and what characteristics she'd like to highlight, collects relevant photographs as references, then starts much as you would as a painter on a blank canvas. Working in Photoshop on a tablet with a stylus, she begins with a rough sketch, adds colors, backgrounds, and fine-tunes details until it feels ready. Donze estimates each portrait takes around 40-50 hours, though it's hard to pin down since she's always working on four or five at a time. The works aren't available to purchase, just for viewing on her site. Her most recent is Angelica Ross on the show Pose.
What draws Donze to a particular artist or character is difficult for her to articulate, especially given the breadth of pop culture references in her work (Star Trek, Beyoncé, Supernatural, Fresh Prince of Bel-Air), but she says it's mostly intuitive. She knows it when she sees it.
"I think it’s mostly that there’s a quietness to certain characters or celebrities [that I paint.] In all of my paintings, there’s not a lot of action. There’s a lot of stillness. I really like that quality, even if I don’t immediately see it in some characters, I like to put them in that," says Donze. "Like a magic space, you can pull this person out of our reality and put them on a screen in front of a camera, in a quiet, but not real place. All of my drawings are in a 'non place.'”
Donze's work frequently plays on ideas and portrayals of masculinity. One of the most memorable is a portrait of John Boyega's character Finn from The Force Awakens. He's in his stormtrooper uniform and holding his helmet, wearing an imperceptible little smile. There's something kind of noble about his posture, like it's an official military portrait, though in this case, his uniform is a soft pink and there's a neon rainbow fixed to his chest.
"In movies from 2000s or before, [there was] a real drive for hyper masculinity where they’ll drain the colors out. The Matrix is a good [example], they’ll drain the colors out to have this really dingy, dreary palate," says Donze. "There’s something really satisfying about taking a character like that and sitting him in this pastel place, giving him flowers and makeup and giving him a break. It’s a way of giving masculinity a little dose of femininity."
That quality is embedded with subtlety in Donze's portrait of actor/director Taika Waititi (Jojo Rabbit, Thor: Ragnarok), in which he's standing with his chest slightly out, well-groomed in a white jean jacket with its collar popped. He looks like he's ready for a closeup, which is fitting because Donze took her inspiration from photos of Waititi on the red carpet, a setting that involves a lot of bright lights, pageantry, and good posture. But in Donze's painting, all the clamor of a movie premiere falls silent. He, like many of Donze's subjects, has a smile that seems to be taking place independently of his mouth and lips. It seemed only fitting to give him the same bucolic background as the actual Mona Lisa.
"[The subjects are] in some place they can’t really be," says Donze. "It’s sort of liminal. When you’re in a liminal place, whether a painting or an airport or a hotel, there are these moments where you’re just really still. I’m always drawn to those kinds of characters and presences on screen. It’s just soothing and comforting to draw that."