Portraits, Expanded

November 1, 2014 - March 7, 2015 *

* Some of the work in this exhibit was deinstalled on January 4, 2015. The work of Eileen Claveloux, Michael Ferris Jr., and Sandra Matthews remains on view through March 7, 2015.

The need to connect with others begins when a baby gazes up at its mother. We need to know and be known, and to be remembered. Portraits, by depicting another human being, seize our imagination and compel viewing in a way no other genre can. Portraits, Expanded is a multi-gallery exhibit featuring work by artists who extend the traditional concept of portraiture to include language, voice, time, history, community, and culture.

Kate Gridley paints the most traditional oil paintings exhibited in this show. They are fully realized, three-quarter-length portraits rendered with remarkable fidelity to the sitter and absolute mastery of paint. What is unusual about these portraits is that they are not of popes, princes, or presidents; they are of teenagers on the cusp of adulthood, an age seldom honored or represented in paint. For her series Passing Through: Portraits of Emerging Adults, Gridley worked with the Vermont Folklife Center in recording the stories of her subjects, and the audio accompanies each portrait. Late adolescence is an often overlooked but critically important developmental stage. These portraits explore and celebrate a generation coming into its own.

At first glance, Bill Ramage’s colossal pencil drawings are highly realistic self-portraits that appear to have been executed over decades. In fact, the four images were completed within a span of four years. One might think, “Impossible. He goes from looking like a teenager to looking like an old man.” But Ramage uses his face merely as a starting point for a detailed exploration of perception, asking himself, “How much more can I see? How much more can I record?” Having the unique ability to “turn off” one eye, he lets his dominant eye take over and see in 2-D. Examined closely, the face reveals a certain vertical fish-eyeing, because the artist recorded what he actually saw in the mirror as his eye moved from top to bottom. Each piece explores the topography of Ramage’s face in ever-more-minute detail. The final piece is unfinished: Coming to the end of his exploration, satisfied that he could perceive and record with no more accuracy, Ramage put down his pencil and moved on to his next artistic challenge.

Michael Ferris Jr.’s sculptural portraits, constructed from reclaimed wood, are physically larger than life. His masterful carving captures subtleties in expression and posture. A furrowed brow, jowly cheeks, a paunch, or rounded shoulders are rendered palpably real. Ferris covers his figures with an array of carved patterns inlaid with colored wood glue. The effect is alchemical. An ordinary man is transformed into an exotic personage—a king or shaman from a culture that prizes embellishment.

Individually, Mary Bachmann’s arresting gelatin silver photographs of elderly Lutheran deaconesses from Gladwyne, Pennsylvania, are straightforward portraits in the documentary tradition of Walker Evans. They are startlingly direct, detailed investigations of aging faces gazing forward with guileless expressions. Each woman, garbed in the habit of her order, is at once an individual and a sister. Collectively, they tell a story of community, faith, and piety.

Sandra Matthews began making photographic portraits of her female friends, oftentimes with their children, in the 1980s. She returned to the project a few years ago, reshooting across time and generations. Digital technology allows her to knit the images together, compressing time and space, the women’s younger and older selves bracketing a segment of their living. The portraits speak to the individuality as well as the commonality of the human experience.

Eileen Claveloux prints on layers of translucent materials—obscuring, shadowing, and overlapping the features of her subjects—as a means of underscoring the family history embedded in a face. Many of her subjects wear sunglasses, further concealing the “windows of their souls.” Beyond physical characteristics determined by genes, what sadness (or celebration) born of history is carried in a face, a posture? What memories or shared histories are carried from generation to generation? In Claveloux’s series, it is the Armenian genocide of 1915. Each of her subjects is a descendant of a family with one or more ancestors among the 1.5 million who perished. Each carries the memory of that horrific moment in history forward to the next generation.

Lauryn Welch’s richly colored photographic self-portraits for her series Camouflage for the Colorblind conceal rather than reveal. Situated in front of wildly patterned backgrounds, Welch paints herself in a dizzying array of mostly red and green patterns. The patterns and colors covering her face, neck, and shoulders are sometimes an extension of the backdrop and other times a counterpoint to it. The works investigate color perception, camouflage, conformity, and nonconformity. It is the work of an artist investigating her place in society and the art world—at once silly, serious, and searching.

From Gibson Girls to cover girls, the faces of beautiful women have adorned product advertisements for more than a century. Paul Hunter, fascinated by these goddesses of glamour, photographs them on billboards and subway ads in and around New York City. He scales the images and screens them in black pigment with splashes of color (most notably, lipstick red) over aluminum or silver leaf. Heavily made up, air brushed, posed, and frozen, each siren is more icon than flesh and blood. The work can hardly be considered portraiture: no individual with personality, laugh lines, and an animated face is depicted. Rather, these are portraits of a particular segment of society, portraits of aspiration to synthetic beauty—a beauty designed and sold to women, and for that matter men, in cultures dominated by commerce.

Documentary video, like film, is an immersive experience that unfolds over time. Unlike most films and video documentaries, however, most art videos are not embedded with a strong narrative structure. Michel Moyse’s three-channel Motion Painting: Carol Wincenc is a portrait, not a documentary. A world-renowned flutist, Wincenc appears in snippets of an interview with Moyse. An audio track of her flute playing forms a soundscape. Abstract colors and marks—sometimes syncopated, other times melodic, still others contrapuntal—dominate the viewing area. These are Moyse’s brushstrokes, unfolding, overlapping, obscuring, and revealing his vision of Wincenc and her music.

Collaborators Susan Wilson and Anna Koloseike use the ancient form of a mask as the central figure of their sculpture Seekers. Historically, masks do not conceal—they reveal. Masks are metaphors for the inner, the spiritual, or the animal being. A disembodied mask being lifted skyward by many hands leaves us puzzling over meaning. Is this a life mask, a death mask, a metaphoric mask, a theatrical mask? A portrait of grief? A portrait of memory?

The puppets created by Coni Richards, Jana, Zeller, and Ines Zeller-Bass for Sandglass Theater’s D-Generation: An Exaltation of Larks are remarkably lifelike, even when not being manipulated by their puppeteers. They are portraits of aging, of physical and mental fragility, of grace. And when combined with Michel Moyse’s video projections for the play, they become portraits of memory and spirit.

long brown hair and a boney freckled body. Eight words, rendered by hand in elegant Caslon type and filling a canvas, distill the sitter’s physiognomy to its dominant traits. Janice Krasnow’s reductive approach to portraiture seems perfect in a world of tweets and texts. But unlike a tweet, Krasnow’s portraits are both tactile and thought provoking. The mind and the hand of the artist are clearly evident—observing, sorting, editing, choosing, painting—crystallizing for herself and the viewer the physical essence of the sitter.

Christopher Irion has spent forty years photographing individuals in communities across the country and fashioning the photos into large, multi-panel group portraits. He belongs to the online community tumblr., where individuals around the globe make and post portraits on the Web. Acting more as curator than artist, Irion has gathered a selection of what to him are the most interesting portraits currently posted on tumblr., and printed them (with permission) in a scale larger than can be experienced when viewed online with a cell phone, tablet, or computer screen.

Using an innovative range and variety of media and techniques, the artists in this exhibit show us what “portraiture” can do. By capturing images of humans and the human condition, portraits bind us together as almost no other genre can.

—Mara Williams, Chief Curator


Photo Gallery