Updated: Apr 21
April 1 through May 6, 2023
The word “portrait” can apply to many different things, such as a place, a time, a culture, or a person; the current show at Gray Loft Gallery is dedicated to people.
Portraits always seem like declarative statements. But the portrait always stages a dialogue, featuring the question “What am I like, and what is like me?”
Portraiture insists that the viewer considers how he, she, or they compare to the subject. As direct exploration of a “Self”, a portrait distills an identity and projects it into the mind of the viewer or reader. The recipient then experiences an awareness of the self in relation to that self in the image. The image may provoke recognition, aspiration, validation, insult, deference, or otherness...
Whether by surprise or as increased certainty, the viewer may know something after the encounter that answers the portrait’s question.
For most of us, the natural starting point in viewing a portrait is to seek recognition; the picture is a window on ourselves, and on humanity. At times the offered image appears to intentionally make this challenging, but always with the presumption that there is a worthy payoff.
A portrait can have the attitude of re-presenting or of reflecting, and one of the key differences between one viewer’s response and another will be which of those two attitudes is felt as the portrait’s side of the dialogue.
At the Gray Loft show, this duality is just one of many that fuels the exploration curator Jan Watten engages in with her selection of artists. What follows are four observations about that, with some images from the show interspersed.
[NOTE: The images are not positioned here to be demonstrating their nearest particular adjacent observation; I have sprinkled them throughout, simply to mimic having made my own comparisons as a viewer seeing the show. Browse any picture below at any point along your way; indulge their suggestiveness.]
Among the works making up the show, some pictures have the kind of literal visual precision that implies the subject is an actual person highly familiar to the artist. In other cases, the pictures are more abstract, yet strongly gestural, in bringing feelings to the viewer. These are not mutually exclusive appearances, but we see it in the organization of the works on the walls.
There is also a mix of another kind among the images. Sometimes the feeling in the picture has been created mainly by the artist’s way of rendering the subject; the portrait itself might be considered an invention of the subject’s apparent identity. Elsewhere an artist has “found” in the subject a feeling that is painstakingly distilled and transmitted from the subject through the artist; something we can consider to be an interpretation expressing a character. Again, there is not a strict separation of the two, rather an evident difference that also allows blends.
But either one can be the route to the way we see others or the way we see ourselves.
If we “see ourselves in” the subject, that quickly leads to asking what the portrait appears to be saying about us. Is it creating a particular version of us? Is it critiquing us, or at least who we think we are? What do we see in that mirror?
But if we see someone else in the picture, what is the message? Is the subject a version of someone who we could be, or shouldn’t be? Or is it the picture’s intent to amplify a characteristic that heightens our awareness of what people, humans, can be like or can feel?
In general, the artists use the subject displayed in the picture as a way of conveying a message above or beyond the ordinary reality of the subject’s presence. They achieve this in more than one mode.
At Gray Loft, several established conventions of portraiture run strongly through the show’s variety of pictorial styles. Said differently, viewers are invited to dwell on the relationship between a style and the purpose given it by the artist. Interesting tensions can arise from why we ourselves think some combination was used versus why the artist decided to use it, but that’s what makes us look at the works several times instead of making just one pass through them
While we readily observe that the range of work spans from the realistic to the abstract, the more important distinction turns out to be between the virtual and the actual – the representation of what appears to be imagined persons or real ones. Among the eleven artists in the show, some use more abstraction in representing either the virtual or actual, while others use more realism.
Among those “realists”: we can easily consider that the subject agreed to “sit for” the picture as a willing accomplice. Here the strain of visual “realism” is in the service of transmitting ideas, not just presenting facts “drawn from life”. Sometimes, there is the notion that the subject is a “muse”. But with others, perhaps being mainly a “life model” was the job. In these modes, the subject projects all the details needed by the artist, who captures them for composing the display.
A few works offer the more abstract “icon”, having an intentional reference beyond detailed fidelity to any actual person observed, but now moving the notion of an actual person much more towards a symbolic one. The examples here include ones that seem to critique our appetite for celebrities, or even just for what celebrities look like.
And, finally, there is the invented character. The invention of characters is clearly significant as a way to answer portraiture’s key questions in the viewer’s mind. A strong characterization is not fundamentally different from fantasizing. And not at all unusual, being the stock in trade of illustrators.
Across the spectrum of styles and intents, we as viewers may not actually be certain when the subject was an actual or virtual person. It can make a difference of course, because we think about the artist largely in terms of how the artist treats people, and that forms a key element of what relationship we think we may have with the artist. Are we alike, different, or undecided? And do we care about it? If yes, why?
This is exactly what “appreciation” is, and Watten’s attention to mixing things up makes appreciation a stronger takeaway from the show while not diminishing our usual pleasure of finding a few favorites among the works.
A final duality on offer comes from a sense of how these visual artists share ways of influencing us that are in common with other kinds of artists. As viewers, we also bring our thoughts and feelings from our broader experience of artwork to our encounter with these pictures.
In the case of portraiture, we have a persistent requirement for veracity. But that expectation can offer two paths to satisfaction. One is truthfulness to the identity of the subject. The other is truthfulness to the experience that the subject represents.
We could argue that this distinction takes us close to that between non-fiction and fiction. It’s an atypical way of categorizing portraiture, but having said it, I find that the fit is comfortable.
Either way, we expect that a portraitist has a deep familiarity with the experiences of being human – of how people appear to us, and when, and why. Exposing the mental image of that psychology through the features of the artwork is the artist’s challenge.
Featured Artists in DEPICTIONS:
Jayne Biehn, Gene Dominique, Christine Ferrouge, Lin Fischer, Drew Klausner,
Sue Matthews, Lynn McGeever, Glenna Mills, Jude Pittman, Bill Prochnow,
Ron Moultrie Saunders.
- Malcolm Ryder, with Constance Hale
April 17, 2023