The desire to perform and the want to conceal would seem counterintuitive in theory. The mere thought of subjecting oneself to the gaze of the camera, the reach of the microphone or the lights of the stage conjures a nightmarish prescience in some, just as it engenders an almost lustful flight of fancy for others.

But we are complicated beasts; confused compounds of projected familial aspirations, inner desires and outward appearances. The semblance of bashfulness or extroversion hardly equates to a resolved behavioural or psychological state. The troubled, shambolic lives of countless of our most renowned dramatic and musical icons would seem to render the correlation between public face and personal fulfilment perilously tenuous. Appearances can often be deceiving.

It’s a notion worth taking into account when spending time with The Painted Mirror, the most recent body of work from American-born artist Deborah Paauwe. Employing the sequins, sheen and symbology of the child beauty pageant as its register, this suite of staged portraits skirt a particular tension between public and private. Indeed, while Paauwe’s close-cropped, highly gestural photographs capture her young teen (and even younger tween) protagonists striking various melodramatic poses in full, garish kitsch regalia, there is something askew.

As with much of Paauwe’s work, the girls’ faces are obscured and erased from view; in this case, via a series of handheld props, such as vintage, hand-painted mirrors and colourful paper fans. It’s a telling motif. Like earlier work, too, there are irrevocable linkages to personal history and autobiography here. That Paauwe cites her part-Chinese heritage – specifically, a cultural sensibility of concealing one’s emotions – as an inspiration for the series adds an intriguing layer. 

With the face concealed, there is little personal legitimacy to these poses. Indeed, how does one read the body without the aid of the face? Our eyes fall upon the details – the position of the hand, the fall of the hair, the subtle stain of recently removed nail polish. The children’s gestures, costumes and bodies become an almost arbitrary system of signifiers.  They resemble and hint at emotion and joy and reticence, but they fail to offer confirmation.

What might have been considered as a light-hearted study of primping, play and “girls being girls” is in fact far more complex in its disposition. These are girls are play-acting learned femininity. They are living out contrived drama, emotion and behaviour of someone else’s dream.