Saturday, September 13, 2014

Portraiture Now: Staging the Self

Where: National Portrait Gallery

When: through April 12, 2015

"Portraiture Now" is the National Portrait Gallery's series featuring the works of 21st century artists.  Strolling through the gallery, you might think that the collection consists entirely of oil paintings of dead people, most of whom are rich, male and of European descent.  "Portraiture Now" shows that portrait artists can be from diverse backgrounds, depict people from every walk of life and use abstraction as well as realism in their work.

"Staging the Self" is the ninth installment of this series.  I've seen several, although not all of the offerings, and they're always interesting.  You may like or dislike what you see, but it's not a run of the mill show.

"Staging the Self" focuses on six Latino artists, who work in a variety of media: photography, sculpture, mixed media and painting.  The notes on the website will tell you that they have similarities, but I didn't really see it.  Each seems utterly different than the others.  I don't mind the lack of an overall theme; I simply viewed it as a opportunity to see the works of six different artists.

My feelings about the show are, like the media, mixed.  Some I liked, and others I didn't.  Carlee Fernandez is a sculptor, but uses photography as well.  I think of her as "the bear girl," because in several photos she appears in parts of a bear suit.  In one, she's topless, wearing only the back of the suit.  In another, she wears only the top of the suit.  If it sounds odd, well, that's because it is.  She was featured at an exhibit at the Orange County Museum of Art, a museum I visited many years ago.  If there's a better collection of ridiculous art (things that make you think, "a fool and his money are soon parted") out there, I don't want to see it.  This makes it seems as if I didn't like Fernandez' work, and that's not actually true.  It's unusual, but her photography is very good.  She took a picture of herself dressed as her father and paired that with a photograph of her father - again, weird, but intriguing.

Fernandez isn't the only one to contemplate her relationship with her father; Maria Martinez-Canas takes a photograph of herself and a photograph of her father and overlays them.  As you walk around the room, you start out with a photo that's 90% her father and 10% her.  Gradually, the percentages are reversed, and you end with a photo that's 90% her and 10% her father.  Really interesting - more so, I think, than if it had been a father-son or mother-daughter pairing.

Speaking of mothers and daughters, Karen Miranda Rivadaneira uses photography to recreate memories of her childhood.  Two of them stood out, but not in a good way.  One is of a old woman (possibly her grandmother) nude, being bathed as the artists looks on.  One cannot help but wonder if grandma (who seems a bit removed from reality) knows that a nude photo of her is on display in a public museum?  One fears she might not approve.  Another is of her with her mother, lying in bed.  One of her mother's breasts is hanging out of her shirt.  I suppose it's meant to suggest breast-feeding, but it was hard to concentrate on the artistry of the image with Mom's huge breast dominating the picture.  At least Mom is clearly cognizant of what's going on and presumably gave her permission for this image to be displayed.

Verdict: Setting aside museum space specifically for contemporary artists is an idea I applaud.  Portraiture is not only about showing the "great men" of the past, but also about artistic expression in the present.  This is a hit or miss show, but worth it for the Martinez-Canas photos alone.

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