In participation with Atlanta Celebrates Photography, Jackson Fine Art is exhibiting works by two artists, Trine Søndergaard and Duane Michals. The lesser known of the two, Søndergaard is a Danish photo-based visual artist living and working in Copenhagen. Pieces from her series Guldnakke are on view at the gallery through December 3.
Unfortunately, the excellence of Søndergaard’s work is easily overlooked in the small gallery located at the back of Jackson Fine Art, where her large-scale images are limited and crowded onto three walls. In order to enter the gallery, one must first traverse the two larger galleries filled with the photographs of Søngergaard’s male counterpart. No signage or labeling of where one exhibition ends and the other begins, only an obscure doorway leading to the small room housing Guldnakke. While it would appear to be somewhat slighted, Søndergaard’s exhibition ultimately holds its own, captivating viewers with its understated elegance.
For Guldnakke, which translates as “golden neck,” Søndergaard photographed contemporary women wearing traditional Danish bonnets from the 19th century. These gilded bonnets were popular among the wives of wealthy farmers during the mid-1800s and were worn as symbols of status among the peasant class. Up to this point in history, gold beaded textiles had been reserved for the elite — royalty, nobility, or the church — so the bonnets hold a special significance in the social history of Denmark. Additionally, the gold covered bonnets were made by highly specialized female artisans, and these embroiderers are early examples of self-employed women who profited financially from their artistic skills.
Through Guldnakke, Søndergaard sets out to take an object that at one time might have been considered craft or “women’s work” and showcases it within the context of fine art. In this series of portraits, the subjects all have their backs to the viewer, putting the focus entirely on the golden bonnets and the women’s elegant necks. The young women are dressed in contemporary clothing (see Guldnakke #9), creating a visual collision between past and present. The anonymity of the subjects only adds to the enigmatic effect of the gleaming bonnets, which appear to exist out of place and time.
The large-format images enhance the visual impact of the bonnets, revealing the intimate detail and complexity of the embroidery. Søndergaard’s use of soft light and a palette of vibrant textiles create a painterly, Vermeer-esque effect, prompting the question: are these really photographs? Upon closer examination, the photographic exactitude of the work makes itself clear and the viewer is transported from the 17th century’s Girl with a Pearl Earring to the 21st century’s Guldnakke #6.
While the gold bonnets are no doubt the focal point of the images, it is important to note the status of the human subjects in the series. Perhaps taking a note from Barbara Kruger’s female portrait Untitled (Your Gaze Hits the Side of My Face), Søndergaard manipulates the viewer’s gaze one step further by placing it on the backs of women’s heads. Historically , the female model has symbolized women’s position in art as sexual object to be visually appreciated by men. Often depicted as curvaceous nudes lounging in domesticity, women are object not subject, painted not painter.
Here, Guldnakke #3 offers an image of woman that does not focus solely on her body or sexuality. Søndergaard reimagines the historical portrait by making her subject an object—the gold beaded bonnet. While the bonnets themselves represent the changing status of women in art historically, Søndergaard continues this narrative by, as a contemporary female artist, offering an alternative to the traditionally sexualized representation of women in art and culture.
In light of this interpretation of Guldnakke, it is ironic that Michals’s exhibition, “The Narrative Photograph,” features images of nude women sitting on his face and of “morning wood.” Whether a result of limited resources, the reputation of the artists, or simply male privilege, it is obvious which exhibition took precedence over the other. Søndergaard’s exhibition may appear as an afterthought, but it is truly a hidden gem—or the pot of gold at the end of “Duane Michals: The Narrative Photograph.”
Trine Søndergaard’s series Guldnakke is on view through December 3 at Jackson Fine Art.
Megan Murdie is a writer living in Atlanta.