It is often said that there is nothing new in art, and it certainly can seem that way at times. But there’s a lot of value in revisiting familiar genres if you have something new to say about them. Two shows – “At Face Value” at Cove Street Arts and “John Whalley: Short Stories” at Greenhut Galleries (both through August 27) – are worth checking out for the new language and ideas they inject into the classical art forms.
In “At Face Value”, curator Vincent Maxime Daudin, a collector, fashion industry consultant and creative director in New York and Paris for many years, tackles the portrait, essentially turning it on its head, therefore, to say. Through painting, drawing, charcoal, photography, pastel and mixed media, Daudin challenges the portrait’s often idealized representation of the human form. He seeks a more immediate emotional verisimilitude and aims to upset the very nature of what portraiture is.
Starting with a particularly destabilizing example: the portraits of children by the Amsterdam painter Ellen de Meijer. The artist adopts the cutesy style of the doe-eyed innocents of kitsch figurines and cartoons. But we clearly discern this visual language as just a veneer of adorableness in their gaze, which is creepy and robotic. It’s a chilling composure imposed on them by the strict social codes of privilege and wealth, and their unsmiling faces and blank stares indicate an almost violent repression of the unruly and combustible emotions below.
Or there are the young people depicted in the oil on paper and graphite on paper works of New York-based Eric Helvie. There is incredible skill in the way he captures the pensive expressions of his subjects. Most seem to telegraph the isolation and alienation of many millennials, the result of many factors (the pandemic, social media, a widespread sense of dystopia). Helvie composes the meaning of these external forces through brushstrokes that partially obscure facial features, as if these young people are lost behind the contemporary boredom of our world, struggling to concentrate.
London-based artist Dahren Davey does something similar, but from his perspective on the fashion world (he worked for Vivienne Westwood and was a fashion illustrator, designer and researcher). It casts the same kind of disaffection that Helvie approaches in high relief using bright colors often associated with uplifting moods. Yet these young men do not look happy. Like the painter Marilyn Minter, he draws the curtain on a darker side of fashion. “(The) majority of these models are simply clothes racks being asked to be expressionless models,” reads Davey’s statement – damn their inner lives.
This feeling of pressure from external societal forces appears again and again. Massachusetts-based Lucy Beecher Nelson covers her faces and those of her family with textile designs taken from household objects and clothing from her home. It is a device for commenting on how certain gender and domestic roles are imposed on our daily lives, limiting the much more complex truth of our natures.
Born in Uzbekistan, New York painter Yuriy Ibragimov captures expressions that seem, thanks to the restless energy of his brushstrokes, already rushing towards us, here for a fleeting moment. This is a piece with “JFH and Dark Garden” by Alex Kanesvsky, a diptych whose left side blurs the face and shoulders of its subject in a way reminiscent of old celluloid film reels that s cling to the projector, presenting consecutive moments of superimposed expression. on top of each other so that they seem to vibrate.
It’s not all melancholy. The “sitters” of Ed Valentine, who splits his time between Ohio and New Jersey, appear disfigured in the manner of George Condo, but they are more whimsical than grotesque. The works are in love with paint as a medium at the same time as they feel humorously cartoonish.
And Austrian-born, New York-based, Grammy-winning graphic designer and album cover designer Stefan Sagmeister uses old portraits to layer positive messages that counteract the contemporary anxieties that permeate many other works. For example, “Scriptures” is a 19th century Madonna on which he grafted three enamel shapes. These symbols are measures of the number of books printed in England per million people – 65 in 1600 (a small white star), 298 in 1800 (a larger green star) and 1745 in 2000 (a purple triangle) – indicating the growing literacy in the country. . ‘Mrs. MP’ tracks the growth of women in British government, ‘Hot and Cold’ the availability of running water.
In essence, Daudin does not present portraits of particular people so much as snapshots – inventively crafted through classical form – of the world of our time.
Trompe-l’œil painting dates from ancient Greece. In the 17th century, however, Dutch artists became particularly adept at such sleight of hand (their trompe-l’oeil still lifes and portraits were, in fact, called “deceits”). The English (Edward Collier, for example) and the French (Jean-Étienne Liotard) wore it until the 1700s.
John Whalley, who lives near Damariscotta, clearly worships this genre. His talent is, frankly, amazing. Her work is so meticulously painted or drawn with graphite that the textures of wood, leather, metal, grass, twine and pine cones take on a visceral presence. The illusion of three-dimensionality is quite convincing.
To me, the graphite works are even more breathtaking for the way they evoke texture, light and weight within the confines of a black, white and gray palette. Compare, for example, “Conifer” and “Sea Cone”. It is exactly the same cone, the first rendered in oil on panel, the second in graphite on paper. Both are exquisite. But, in a way, one could say that it is easier to convey light with oil paint because you have the true palette of light at your disposal – namely different shades of yellow, pink , gold and copper. Indeed, “Conifer” is bathed in a warm golden glow.
However, the perception of light in “Sea Cone” is no less convincing, almost even more so. Whalley achieves this by relying more on shadow than light, with her shadow providing contrast that makes lighter areas appear equally lit by daylight.
This is extremely laborious and time-consuming work. A piece like “Requiem,” a graphite drawing of wild grass measuring 40 by 30 inches, took Whalley about 400 hours to complete. Whalley also uses the techniques of the Dutch masters, namely egg tempera on panel. This medium dries extremely quickly, which ironically meant that Whalley had to proceed slowly, painting small sections at a time over a long period of time. This makes a work like “Bowl of Pears” almost miraculous.
All this, despite the extraordinary perfection and craftsmanship, is not particularly new. So what is Whalley’s innovation? It lies in the depth he brings to the genre. The trompe l’oeil work of the Flemish and Dutch Renaissance, as well as modern American realists like Audrey Flack and John Stuart Ingle, created images that made you feel like you could reach out and pull one out. apple, a flower, a pencil. or a coin. Incredible as they are, the focus here is on visual trickery.
Whalley’s works convey warmth, melancholy and/or nostalgia, as well as a poignant sense of passing time. A painting like “Duo”, an egg tempera on panel of a baseball and a softball, does this in several ways. First of all, Whalley has a propensity for objects that look worn. These are not new pristine white balls. In the larger of the two we see cracks caused by aged leather. In the smallest part of the red stitching has disappeared. Second, the painted surface they sit on is chipping and peeling, revealing the wood underneath. Finally, and perhaps most lyrically, a rectangle of what appears to be late afternoon light at the top projects through glass onto the surface.
In “Camouflage”, the sense of time comes from the obvious age of the wrench and the hammer. Weathered metal, paint splattered wooden handles – these have clearly seen years of service. My favorites are the simpler compositions of simple utilitarian objects – spackle knives, taps, awl and spool of string – because they telegraph so much with so little. But all of them seem to have a presence, as if we are not just seeing objects, but their inner spirit and the imprint of their history.
Jorge S. Arango has been writing about art, design and architecture for over 35 years. He lives in Portland. He can be reached at: [email protected]
Book review: In his latest novel, Jeffrey Lewis tackles some very big questions