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Fine art portraits are a tricky business. Successful ones walk that fine line between too much information and too little, gingerly balancing a humanity that is universal with an individuality that is unique. Nothing seems more human than an attraction to faces; from the moment we are born, we endeavor to identify others as a matter of sheer survival. Eventually, we endeavor to identify ourselves, too. In “Portraits in Contemporary Photography: Selections from a Series” now showing at the Drift Gallery in Portsmouth, NH, nine photographers present a captivating diversity of work exploring identity.
Right now, we live in an era when photographic portraiture is arguably experiencing its most creative expression. With the development of new technologies like animated “GIF” (Graphics Interchange Format) images, that include minimally moving elements, and the resurgence of archaic “alternative processes”, the toolbox available to today’s photographers is vast. Ali Goodwin, Curator and Director of the Drift Gallery, has assembled a stellar group of photographers who, utilizing the full range of these techniques, have created remarkable portraits. One of the beauties of portraits is that everyone relates differently to them and it is one of the best reasons I can think of to go see them in person. Here, I’ll highlight just a few of the photographers and a small selection of the compelling portraits from this inspiring show.
Jennifer McClure (New York City) is the only artist to exhibit self-portraits, from her series “Laws of Silence”. Interestingly, she is also the only photographer in the show to exclude her head from every shot. Angst-ridden, fearful and lonely, she hides from view, often entwined or engulfed by symbolic elements like rope or water. Her darkly beautiful images could be suffocating but for McClure’s uncluttered compositions, with gleams of directional light that suggest a spirit in the act of liberation. The mystery and ambivalence of her images act like an emotional magnet.
Alec Von Bargen (Milan) uses a small digital point-and-shoot camera to explore grand concepts in his series “Veritas Feminae”. His one piece in this show is likewise grand in scale, presenting a blurred woman with an open and steady gaze. Her pose is casual and direct but she is out of focus, appears off-center in the frame and her image is literally separated by irregularly-occurring, thin white lines. Clearly, we are meant to read between them. We get some help from Von Bargen’s trippy artist statement: he finds “marginalized” women on the street and photographs them, sometimes without exchanging a word. Then, in what can only be described as a highly imaginative, spiritual interpretation, he layers the history of one woman onto another, inventing a “pairing between the real, marginalized women in the photos with truly extraordinary women from history who in my opinion had honest and profound tales to tell.” An exercise in mind expansion, Von Bargen’s image and installation are fittingly enigmatic for both the identity shift of his subject and the mind shift required of the viewer. (The whole idea of transforming into someone else reminds me of the Talking Heads’ shape shifting song, “Seen and Not Seen” from their “Remain in Light” album.)
Bear Kirkpatrick (Portsmouth, NH) likewise layers history onto his subjects, conjuring a completely different feeling in his series “Wallportraits”. Kirkpatrick’s imagery is as carnal as Von Bargen’s is ethereal, and yet we sense a dream-like mystery in both. Channeling the history from actual wall paintings, Kirkpatrick conspires with his models to embody that history, using head and body coverings to aid in the realization and liberation of their hidden identities. Like Von Bargen, his models greet viewers with a steady gaze, but any similarity ends there. Kirkpatrick’s models physically embody his visions; adorned with fabrics (and often feathers and clay), their textured visages are centrally framed, sharply focused, enhanced with complementary palettes and accentuated by deliberate lighting. Kirkpatrick’s layering of discernible paintings onto evocatively decorated models offers both food for thought and a feast for the eyes.
Former fashion editor Aline Smithson presents colorful, formal portraits of “girls on the cusp of womanhood” in her series “Revisiting Beauty”. Dismayed by photography’s “turn away from the ideal of beauty”, Smithson takes inspiration from the color legacy of photographer William Eggleston and the formalism of 20th century painters in the creation of her portraits. With the same direct gaze that characterizes most of the portraits in this exhibit, each of Smithson’s girls is centrally placed in a square format, before a richly hued backdrop upon which a faded landscape has been added. Dressed in sumptuous, bright garments with hair drawn back, tasteful make-up and minimal props, Smithson’s portraits “connect color, landscape, pose and object” with a pleasing dimensionality that adds to the vivacious power of her colors. It is Smithson’s mastery of color that causes the stately girls in her photographs to jump to life, revealing the vibrant beauty they have yet to discover in themselves. The overall effect is practically edible and entirely stunning.
The Loft of Drift Gallery is devoted to portraits by Joseph D.R. OLeary (Minneapolis), from his series “Of Beards and Men”. In OLeary’s studio shots, men of every persuasion greet us with forthright gazes, in the clothing (or not) and accessories of their choice, allowing them the freedom of self-definition. The feature they all share is a beard in this “exploration of society’s current fascination with defining masculinity”. In a kind of “proof of theorem”, OLeary presents all the men under identical conditions, which serves to accentuate their differences. Occasionally, OLeary’s high definition focus and lighting combine with the men’s waxy-looking skin, a banal prop, or a slick pose to appear almost like an advertisement, but mostly they are illuminating, captivating and fun. Not only that, but the beard-wearing public will have their chance to have a portrait made by Mr. OLeary at Drift Gallery (reservations necessary!) ahead of his artist talk and book signing on Saturday, June 28th (details below).
The work of Cig Harvey (Rockport, Maine), Noah David Bau (Boston), Amy Elkins (Los Angeles) and Christa Blackwood (Austin, Texas) complete the Drift Gallery contemporary portrait exhibit, on view through July 20th, 2014. If you love either photography or portraiture, you will be inspired by this show. And one more thing: for those who are sensitive to gallery ambience, that subtle mix of spatial relationships, sight lines, the placement and interplay of artwork on the walls, and its balance with unoccupied space, you will derive extra joy from the sensitive intentionality that Ali Goodwin has brought to the hanging of this show.
For directions to Drift Gallery in Portsmouth, NH and more information about this exhibit, go to:
Feature image: “Joel, 2102” archival inkjet print from the series “Of Beards and Men” by Joseph D.R. OLeary (courtesy of the artist and Drift Gallery)