Monday, December 20, 2010

Changing Faces, Facing Changes

Changing Faces, Facing Changes

By Tom Wachunas

“When you start with a portrait and search for a pure form, a clear volume, through successive eliminations, you arrive inevitably at the egg. Likewise, starting with the egg and following the same process in reverse, one finishes with the portrait.”
- Pablo Picasso -

“Every portrait that is painted with feeling is a portrait of the artist, not the sitter.”
- Oscar Wilde –

Then again, some portraits may have nothing to do with feelings at all (at least not in the ‘spiritual’ sense of the word) – sitters’ or artists’. They are sometimes purely cerebral vehicles for exploring formal or aesthetic concerns. In any event, many observers of the timeless art of portraiture have shared Oscar Wilde’s assessment of just what it is we’re beholding when we gaze upon another’s painted or drawn visage. “The Changing Face of Portraiture” is the name of the latest exhibit in the large upper gallery of the Canton Museum of Art. The works presented here are from the museum’s impressive permanent collection. In Vignette, the museum’s printed guide to its exhibits, we’re asked, “What do we expect from portraiture?...We want more than ‘likeness,’ and we depend on the artist’s imagination to help us see past a subject’s outward appearance toward a larger reality.”

Those likenesses and ‘realities’ can reflect everything from an era’s dominant aesthetic trends and societal perceptions of personality or celebrity, to exploring social behaviors and class differences, or depicting the subtler psychological underpinnings of both artist and subject. All of these aspects of portraiture are evident in this thoroughly diverse and engaging range of works that includes classically refined canvases, elegant prints and watercolors, sumptuous impressionistic visions, stylized abstractions, and some roguish, funky experiments.

The relentless march of sociocultural changes in the world is startlingly evident when you compare the sweetly Neoclassical renderings here by Gilbert Stuart and Nelson Cook (both from the 1800s), to the visceral 1970s “Head With Purple Eyes” by William Gropper, or the equally jarring and surreal “Man With Doll” by Giacomo Porzano. And the austere flatness of Alex Katz’s “Polka Dot Blouse,” with its clear allegiance to Pop Art sensibilities, is a far cry from the lyricism and painterly sensuality in William Findlay’s 1937 “Portrait of Laura G. Findlay.”

Yet for all the variety of pictorial styles and moods through time (specifically 19th and 20th centuries) that we see here - whether bizarre, confrontational, cool and detached, agitated or serene, humorous or deadly serious – the show does indeed bring to mind what, it seems to me, has consistently driven human kind to make portraits in the first place. Surely it is an innate and universal response to our sense of wondering, an externalizing of our innermost desires to know and be known to each other.

Passing glances, concentrated stares, gazes both steady and averted. Human and animal, traditional and modern. You don’t need to necessarily know the specific subjects (real as well as imagined) in these portraits to regard them as fascinating symbols of how we see… seeing. Or consider them visions of how we literally face each other with questions - and answers - about being alive.

Photo, courtesy Canton Museum of Art: “Portrait of Homer White,” 1921 oil by Gerrit Beneker, on view through March 6, 2011, in “The Changing Face of Portraiture” at the Canton Museum of Art / / (330) 453 - 7666

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