Dedicated to covering the visual arts community in Connecticut.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Face of a new century

Guilford Art Center
411 Church St., Guilford, (203) 453-5947
About Face: The Relevance of Portraiture in the 21st Century
Mar. 14—Apr. 25, 2008

About Face: The Relevance of Portraiture in the 21st Century might be described as a postmodern take on the genre of portraiture. Of course, portraiture is a perennial subject. We have an enduring fascination for images of the human face. But, as in all contemporary art, the act of portraiture is increasingly inflected with self-consciousness and historical consciousness. As curator Samantha Pinckney writes in her introduction to this show, "One of the tendencies of contemporary art is the desire to engage in original ways with the art of the past, another is to challenge the conventions of representation in art." These approaches are reflected in the quite disparate work in this show.

Artists Fritz Drury and Marie Cosindas most directly engage with the tropes of formal portraiture. Drury's oil paintings of his (in these cases) female subjects are subtly crafted through the prism of art historical approaches to portraiture. His influences—or references, if that is more accurate—include artists ranging from Caravaggio to John Singer Sargent to Picasso. The result is that the works, painted in four different decades (the oldest is from 1975), look like they could have come from the hand of four different-but all talented-artists.

Cosindas is a photographer, specializing in large-format Polaroid color film. She is represented here with two large Polacolor prints of celebrities, Candice Bergen and Robert Redford, formally posed. Bergen is captured with her mixture of handsome beauty, grace and intellectual confidence. Redford, clutching a bouquet of roses and photographed in his character for The Sting, is propped against a bar. With his head tilted to the side, he projects an ingratiating insouciance.

The large-format photographic portrait of "Jerrod" by Dawoud Bey is part of an ongoing series of portraits of teenagers. Seated outside at a wooden picnic table and dressed in a zip-up blue jacket, the chubby crew-cutted boy directly engages the viewer. His expression is serious and I notice that his forearms and hands appear scarred and raw. There are the hints of bags and darkness under his eyes. According to the photo's title card, many of Bey's recent portraits include text by his young subjects. Unfortunately, there is no text associated with "Jerrod." From the image, one might speculate that his life has not been a bed of roses. But it is in the nature of photography to sever the moment from the stream of time. This image is a photographic choice. There is no way of really knowing from looking at this picture the true facts of Jerrod's life. Perhaps he spent the photo session mostly laughing and cutting up and this image captured his one serious moment.

Text is an integral part of Daniel Heyman's "Amman Drypoint series." Heyman sketched Iraqi men as they related the stories of their confinement and torture by Americans in the Abu Ghraib prison to human rights lawyers. From the likenesses he had sketched on paper, he made drypoint etchings on copper plates. The men are depicted solemn and dignified as they testify to what was done to them—they were all released without charges—and not in the humiliating poses that have become iconic. Elements of their testimony were scratched in reverse into the copper plates (so they read correctly after printing), filling the space around their images, symbolic of the way in which the trauma continues to color their lives. The text tells of disgraceful treatment: beatings, sexual abuse, emotional assault. In the case of one man, the only individual depicted in a full body portrait ("Disco Mosul"), his captors deliberately and continuously exposed a wound on his right leg. Ultimately, the wound became infected and he had to have the leg amputated. Heyman's pictorial style reminded me of the work of German Expressionist George Grosz, whose drawings captured the dysfunction in the German soul that would lead to Nazism. This is portraiture as witness to a crime in which we as Americans are complicit.

With a background in commercial art, June Bisantz-Evans takes a notably contemporary multi-media approach to self-portraiture. She examines the media-reinforced roles for women that were ubiquitous in fashion and women's magazines when Bisantz-Evans was growing up in the 1950's. She collaged her own face onto archetypal magazine images of housewives—ironing, marveling over a sparkling clean wine glass from a dishwasher, grimacing while straightening the hem of her tight dress. The collaged images were printed as life-size cardboard cutouts. The cutouts are displayed before large sheets of paper printed with advice culled from an article, "How To Be a Good Wife," in a 1955 issue of Housekeeping Monthly: "Arrange his pillow and offer to take off his shoes." "A good wife knows her place." "Listen to him. Remember, his topics of conversation are more important than yours." There is certainly an element of parody and humor here, evident in Bisantz-Evans' histrionic facial expressions superimposed over those of the 1950's models. But, encountering her installation after reading the testimonies of the tortured Iraqi men in Heyman's etchings, is to realize that oppression exists along a continuum from the flagrantly brutal to the ideologically insidious. The extent to which the subordination of women was normalized by a mass media narrative is striking.

Linda Abadjian's self-portraits are fruits of her 2005 return visit to Lebanon, 20 years after she fled the country's civil war for the United States. As in her works shown last October at the No•Mad II show in Hartford, these works on paper were drawn using Sharpie markers and acrylic paints. Abadjian layered images of herself with interiors and exteriors of places in her former hometown. Only in "and My Heart's War" does the image of her face dominate the foreground. In the other works, her face and hands are effaced by the environments she is portraying, often intermingled with fragments of either English or Arabic text. These are portraits of a person as part of a place, and vice versa. Her presence has been left behind in the rooms and hallways, in the dusty streets. And, conversely, the place has left its mark on her, inseparable from her being.

Margaret Zox Brown
's three paintings eschew concentration on the face for a portraiture of figurative form and gesture: the individual at play, rest or meditation. Her brushwork is raw, rough and broad, fitting for work that endeavors to capture not so much individual likeness as the contours of mood and moment. Beverly Strom Bluth's eight portraits are based on photographs she took of people she met while visiting Wexford, Ireland four years ago. Their likenesses are situated within symbolic compositions reflective of their professions. Bluth has an affecting way with color—she notes in her artist statement that "The occasional surprise of sun-drenched yellow ochre walls on Wexford's building exteriors influenced color choices"—and skill at rendering the nuance of faces.

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