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Electing to Face the Race Quirkily

Art: Irvine-based Tina Mion shuffles history into 52 candidates for an interactive Santa Monica exhibit. Her portraits deal in personality and image.

November 05, 1996|CATHY CURTIS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

IRVINE — Tina Mion's story sounds like every fledgling artist's dream--to leap from utter obscurity, from rarely showing your paintings to anyone, to a one-woman show at a Santa Monica gallery. And when you factor in Mion's lack of so much as a bachelor's degree or art school diploma, the story takes on fairy-tale dimensions.

A cynic might point out that in a sluggish art market, gimmicks sell--and Mion has a card trick up her sleeve. "Virtual Election," her project at Sherry Frumkin Gallery (through Nov. 16), incorporates an interactive Election Day theme.

Viewers are asked to vote for one of the 52 portraits she has painted, including all 42 U.S. presidents plus various other Americans portrayed on the Smithsonian Institution's bridge deck. The piece even has an Internet site displaying all the images and an updated tally of votes.

Mion is a friendly woman who laughs a lot and frequently refers to her lack of college education. A self-described transient, she lives--at the moment--on the UC Irvine campus with her husband, Allan Affeldt, a graduate student and political activist.

"It's one of the worst questions, to ask me, 'Where are you from?' " Mion says. "Does that mean you lived there the longest? You liked it the most? You were born there? My husband was saying, 'You're kind of like George Bush. Wherever they're from, you could be from there too.' "

Appropriately, she was born in Washington, a city she used to return to every year for a two-month visit to her grandparents.

"I sort of hung out at the museums," she says. "If I felt lonely. . . ." She trails off. You get the idea early on that there is an impregnable area of privacy around Mion and that she intends to keep it that way.

"And the museums are free. Sometimes I'd just stay in front of one painting for an hour or two until the guard would come up and ask me questions. 'What are you doing?' [I'd say] 'I'm learning. I'm sitting here, and this is my school.'

"I'd sit there taking notes in front of the old masterpieces. All the answers, I figure, are there, as far as the technical aspects of learning how to paint."

At age 12 she met a friend's portrait-painter father. "He was a very big influence on my life, just because I was exposed to an artist's studio for the first time. I hung out at the house a lot. I imagined myself in the shoes of her father."

As a teenager, she apprenticed with academic painter Sidney Willis in New Hampshire and took art classes here and there. But college was not in the picture.

"I didn't know what a degree was," she says. "I wasn't brought up being exposed to that."

Instead, she attended the university of the open road. In India she saw "a lot of beautiful things and also a lot of tragic things, and to see that at a young age is very important because it starts putting you in perspective."

Mion met Affeldt in 1988, when she and 499 other people trekked from Odessa to Kiev as part of an American-Soviet peace walk he organized.

Meanwhile, she kept painting, working for years on projects that she'd complete and store. A couple of years ago, she spent some time in the desert with artist friends who said they were starting a "Sunday Painters" group. Each would produce a painting a week for one year and then they'd get together and pick the best ones to exhibit.

"I'd brought a deck of Smithsonian bridge cards, thinking we'd play cards in the desert," Mion says.

"Well, there's 52 Sundays in a year, and there are 52 cards in the deck. And [the portraits are taken from] the National Portrait Gallery, which I grew up going to. I'd had other ideas of re-creating the National Portrait Gallery, so it fed right into this idea."

Insistent on knowing the personality of the people whose portraits she paints on commission, she figured she needed to do some homework on the presidents as well.

"I'd ask my friends with the college degrees, 'I'm going to do a painting about [James] Monroe this week--what do you know about him?' "

Silence.

It was time to hit the books. Mion's research yielded all sorts of facts, painstakingly cataloged in a series of notebooks and excerpted in notes available to gallery visitors. Her take is largely quirky and personality- or image-oriented. "I'm just your average American," she says.

At the opening of the show, people asked Mion whether they were supposed to vote for the painting they liked best or the candidate whose contributions they most admired.

"That's a question I don't answer, because it's an intrinsic part of the whole thing," Mion says. "It ties into what the real elections are like."

Frumkin, who heard about Mion's work from an acquaintance, says she was impressed by the breadth of the project and by how well Mion had thought through its presentation.

The key feature of the presidential images is the way Mion encrypts aspects of their careers, using different styles intended to capture something of the flavor of each era.

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