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Check your Self at New Gallery of Modern Art 

Art puts a spin on selfie culture

As heady and immersive as Maja Godlewska's art is, her current exhibit at the New Gallery of Modern Art is also a bit damning. Titled Self, the collection of 18 oil and mixed media canvases showcase various gorgeous natural and historical locations through the eyes — and lenses — of travelers and tourists. With its gentle chiding of selfie culture, it pulls the viewer in, allowing us to judge the subjects until we realize we are ourselves guilty of the same self-absorption.

Godlewska, originally from Poland, teaches art at UNC Charlotte and was CL's pick for Best Local Artist of 2012. Her works have a richness of detail and sense of movement that immediately spawn narratives in one's mind.

"Moka," a double-paneled depiction of a woman in a tropical paradise, is a riot of greens, yellows and shoots of orange. The woman, in a botanical-print muumuu and comfortable shoes, stands before what appears to be a waterfall. She is dwarfed by the scale of it, in awe, and recording the moment through her tablet device. It seems a shame, to be surrounded by all that life, in parts layered into 3-D effect so that it appears to be reaching out, and settle for experiencing it through a 2-dimensional lens. A darker third of the 60x120 piece hints at the deeper experience the woman is missing out on.

"Anticyclone at Gris Gris," another 2014 work, shows an ocean scene. Looming in the foreground, a man with a camera takes shots of an unusual weather phenomenon, but squeezed into the same frame are seven other figures, all with some type of camera, cellphone or gear aloft and in use. With their business-tight expressions, the well-heeled travelers appear to appreciate the view in a clinical way, but leave no room to simply enjoy a day at the beach.

Many of Godlewska's subjects seem to let the lens come between themselves and their experience. It begs the question of what takes precedence, experience in the moment or reliving it later? Or in reddit parlance, pics or it didn't happen.

"Trevi 1-3" is a trio of paintings within the series, showing two couples and a single girl all posing for selfies with their backs to a backdrop of bluish greens. The detail is astonishing, if only for being so quiet. The eye lingers on the ocean behind them, full of shadows and light, and only later registers the designer shades, trendy V-neck and neutral manicures. The female couple leans close, necks stretched and chins down, in the skinnifying pose of selfies everywhere. It's as though everyone is living out some fantasy for the camera. A couple of gold-leafed masses float by in the background, a jellyfish photobomb perhaps, to surprise them later on Facebook.

The other distinct set of works within the Self series is framed from the ankles down. Doc Maartens cross an asphalt street, Dior pumps wait at a corner, fashionable heels and toned legs make confident strides through old city streets. The feel is at once strange and familiar — clearly a European setting, though it's not clear why. One shows a pair of feet outfitted in flats, leaning on tip toes toward gym shoes on a rail. It could be a quick kiss before parting ways or a passionate, welcoming embrace. The possibilities are many and delicious.

It's a very different tone from a painting of a pair of strappy block heels, surrounded on three sides by pairs of red, purple and blue sneakers and the skinny jean-clad legs of adolescent boys everywhere. The angle of the feminine legs is awkward on the cobblestone pavement, suggesting a tension and instability not ascribed to the height of her heels. It's less self and more self-preservation, another piece that begs for the story behind it.

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