Every genre of art comes, if not with rules exactly, then with expectations. Religious images are not permitted to be funny, while landscapes are expected to focus on land rather than the people living on it. Judging from endless corridors lined with countless monotonous examples, portraits must be among the most closely-regulated subjects of all. So it’s always a treat to come across an example like this one: two young-ish men who might look at home in any suburb in America, judging from their casual mode of dress and backdrop, yet who are dusted and smeared on every part of their bodies with what looks to be an array of brightly colored powders. But for the incongruity of their locale, a viewer might think “Holi,” the ecstatic and highly social Hindu celebration of Spring, in which the goal is to end the day drenched in every color imaginable.
And the viewer would be right. Marguerite Roberts’ color photograph violates pretty much every expectation for a portrait: not one, but two subjects who, but for sharing their odd circumstances, have no clear connection. They’re not formally dressed or posed and seem not even to agree with each other about the mood of the portrait. In short, it’s not first and foremost about the presentation, but rather about what is being presented: the individuals it holds forth. What it captures will surprise most of those who will see it: that this most popular of Indian cultural celebrations is becoming an international event.
Timeless, an exhibition currently in the Eccles Gallery at the State Street campus of Salt Lake Community College, presents 24 portraits that each contains one version or another of this refreshing approach. To begin with, many are anonymous or suggest that they might be self-portraits. Take, for example, Olivia Dawson’s marvelous “It’s Not You, It’s Me,” a pen and colored ink drawing rife with suggestive elements that include a broken heart, a field of cactus, a pair of flying saucers, and a Levis-and-leather-clad subject with a baseball bat over their shoulder. Who can honestly claim never to have been on either end of the title line, a shamelessly self-exculpatory confession not of having done wrong, but of being the wrong person. Yet in this case, the portrait’s non binary-gendered subject fills this empty vessel with humorous, if still bitter irony. Did you want a boy or a girl? I’m sorry, but I’m neither. I thought love was a bed of roses, not just the thorns. My alien cohort has returned for me and I’m needed on my own planet.
Portraits being about the subject’s identity, it shouldn’t surprise us that in an age of identity awareness, portraits reign supreme in the arts. What else is a selfie but a self-portrait? And of course transcending sterile notions of identity requires overcoming obsolete forms of representation. The “She” who reveals herself in Essie Shaw’s “She Becomes” is surrounded and arrayed by such vivid, three-dimensional foliage that her violet pelt, arrayed with the spots of a large cat, might briefly escape notice.
After a sort of rough apprenticeship, Andrew Alba created for himself a life worth talking about, and so his family figures large in his recent art. In “Nicholas On The Porch,” we encounter his brother, presented in a large format to match his importance to the artist. His sitting on the porch clearly invokes the domestic context, but also offers a view of the neighborhood, a potentially complicating, external factor that might help explain why, instead of meeting the viewer’s gaze head on, he seems lost in his own thoughts. The blend of documentary features, including appearing in his own everyday clothing, yet with a slightly enlarged head and emphasis on his hands, tells us that this is neither merely a portrait nor just a figure painting, but a combination of the two.
Framing, whether literal or figurative, can influence how a portrait reads. In Beatriz Killpack’s “Inward Reflection,” she places a highly realistic head on a painterly background, in front of which the subject might actually have posed, but which the artist has blended subtly with the colors and patterns of her attire to set off her beauty and intense thoughtfulness, much as a setting enhances a jewel. In “High Contrast Viewing,” on the other hand, Pablo Ayala manipulates color and design around the border to make the distance between subject and viewer ambiguous.
Brianna Beck has made a mark on local art with her bold use of a medium that has long been dismissed due to its craft connotations. Her “Purple” features wood that was burned rather than painted on, the image then augmented withsubtle use of watercolor. If it’s only fair to judge the technique by the result, this is a success, the folkloric effect suited to the feeling. A more modern effect shows up in Nancy Rivera’s “Resident Alien” trio: three black-and-white portraits of herself and her parents done in embroidery floss on cross-stitch fabric. Another innovation, one that might not be so universally accepted in spite of its apparent timeliness, is the use, by Tim Xzentradi, of an AI art generator. In general, these computer programs respond to a verbal prompt — perhaps “I want a woman riding a hybrid creature: half cat, half motorcycle” — by searching through massive archives of available visual imagery from which, by following proprietary, digital rules of composition, it creates a picture, like “The Breeze.” As always with something new, these works raise questions of originality. When Andy Warhol first showed his Campbell’s soup can paintings, they were defended on the grounds that he had changed the proportions of the labels, which seemed trivial but was necessary at the time. Similar defenses might be proffered for AI-generated art, which so far seems largely influenced by the limited, science-fiction and fantasy subject matter on which it draws, especially as it, like Warhol’s work, finds its own subject matter and audience.
The overall originality and uniformly high quality of these two dozen portraits surpasses what most group shows can achieve. There is, however, one old-fashioned oil painting that rises above the rest, correcting as it does more past errors of judgment than can be counted, including both the dismissal and the ill-treatment of a most deserving subject. “Old Dog” begins by giving the lie to those intemperate humans who say animals can have neither character not expression. I found myself connecting to this one more powerfully than I do most portraits of people, which testifies both to the remarkable candor of an ethically superior species and to the extraordinary skill of the artist, Heather Olsen. Some people are fond of saying, “You can’t teach an old dog new tricks,” but Olsen’s canine clearly has no need of further instruction from life, and rather could teach some invaluable lessons to any worthy students, were they to apply.
Timeless: Exploring the Human Condition Through Portraiture, Eccles Gallery at Salt Lake Community College, Salt Lake City, through Jan. 26
Geoff Wichert objects to the term critic. He would rather be thought of as a advocate on behalf of those he writes about.
Categories: Exhibition Reviews | Visual Arts
Thank you Geoff, for the lovely review! I only wish I had discovered it sooner. I’m here reading it just after the show has closed. As the show’s curator, it’s wonderful to read a review from someone who really understood and appreciated the exhibit. Thanks again!