‘Can you fall in love with a thing, a robot, a photograph?’

Black latex gloves, wide-eyed doll-like figures, garlands of roses, pink oozing forms. Charlie Stein’s art plays on the language of seduction, fetish and digital realms to explore the boundaries between reality and the imagination, the self and the other. Virtually Yours, the artist’s first solo exhibition at Kristin Hjellegjerde Gallery, comprises a provocative new series of paintings that consider the ways in which we articulate emotion and form attachments.

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The world that Stein paints is bright and shiny – it is a reality that has been fed through filters to create a more palatable, Instagrammable aesthetic and yet, it is also a world that is malfunctioning. We encounter an image of black latex gloves gripping a pink dripping form, reminiscent of a rose or vagina, to later find that these same elements have melted into waves of viscous gloop that are only vaguely reminiscent of their original forms. We encounter a series of young, flawless faces with full, lush lips that appear both impossibly beautiful and broken. In one work, the figure’s face is partially peeling off, in another she is drowning in a pool of water, her huge, glassy eyes turned towards us in an expression of total passivity.

These figures, created partly using digital tools that allow Stein to manipulate and warp the facial features, draw on the phenomenon of the ‘Instagram Face’, a cyborgian amalgam forged by social media and plastic surgery and wider aesthetic ideals. They appear both other-worldly and familiar in a way that invites if not quite empathy then understanding. In the portrait of a woman half consumed by a garland of pink roses, for example, we might laugh at the over-the-top attempt to transform oneself quite literally into a prize, an object while also recognising a very real desire to be admired. As Stein puts it: these works are reflections of ‘the very weird and constant expectations that are placed on women.’

While there has been much discussion around the ways in which the digital world, and in particular social media, distances us from reality and collapses individuality, Stein sees its potential as both an equalising and liberating space. The ways in which Instagram filters neutralise the face, turning us all into a singular image, might, she suggests, also highlight our shared humanity, while the lack of boundaries between digital materials and spaces allows us to experiment with more fluid forms of expression and connection. The show’s title, Virtually Yours, plays on this idea of openness by imagining a sign-off that implies intimacy (digital or otherwise) while also holding something back. For Stein, her broken, melting faces and forms are less about failure than resisting social expectations that demand that we look, behave or feel in any particular kind of way.