In the world of “selfies” and pervasive social media, is the artist-created portrait still relevant?
The Susquehanna Art Museum at The Marty and Tom Philips Family Art Center seeks to answer that query with “Looking In: Portraits and Their Stories.” The exhibition features a curated selection of significant 20th and 21st century works from regional museums and private collections. The selected portraits express stories of both the artists and their subjects, reflecting movements in modern and contemporary art and their relation to the formal concept of the portrait.
Prior to the advent of photography, the portrait was predominantly a luxury of wealthy or those whom culture deemed important. Beginning in the 20th century, wider access to photography made portraiture more available to artists, as well as everyday hobbyists. As a result, artists became more apt to explore outside of the boundaries of realism when depicting the human figure.
Often they sought to express personality and emotion with symbolism, non-realistic colors and narrative settings. Using those tools, they were more equipped to express and explore the unique identities of their subjects. The 33 artists in this exhibition apply their skills to represent not only what a person looks like, but also who they are as a multifaceted individual, regardless of their station in life.
The classic definition of the portrait is represented in the collection by pieces such as Albert Jean Adolphe’s “Self-Portrait,” a beautiful watercolor capturing the artist at work. Even Andy Warhol‘s “Geronimo” and “Marilyn #21” take a Pop Art approach to the classic portraits of “celebrity.”
The portrait has been interpreted by major art movements of the 20th century. Drawing on the Abstract movement, portraits such as Alfred Henry Maurer’s “Portrait of a Man,” an oil on board painting, emerged. The distorted shapes in this Expressionist painting create a simple, primitive rendering of a face that appears to be only vaguely human.
Charles Alston’s “Untitled (Woman)” is a product of the Harlem Renaissance, capturing a shadowy face of a woman with oil paints, oil pastels and ink. While formal in pose, the resulting portrait is a simplified form using darkened colors to compose the features.
The use of symbolism to tell the story of the portrait and its subject can be seen in Salvador Dali’s “Leda Atomica.” In this portrait of his wife, Dali portrays her as a Greek queen, surrounded by a swan and floating eggs in this Surrealistic interpretation of classical myth.
Lucien Clergue’s photograph, “Jean Cocteau les Baux,” finds Cocteau on the set of his film, “Testament of Orpheus.” In rugged, exotic surroundings, the French New Wave pioneer walks toward an incongruous white wing, capturing the dream-like essence of his work.
Portraits of the everyday person, individuals who make an impression on the artist alone and not as a celebrity are demonstrated by Robert Armetta and Catherine Prescott. Armetta’s “Ted (Job)” is a powerful portrait of his struggling neighbor, Ted. The man’s story creates the painting’s mood, bringing the hardship and misfortunes faced by Ted to this intense portrait.
Catherine Prescott has several large oil paintings of people who also made an impact upon her. Be it their relationship to her or their life stories, “Reuben, You Have My Ear: Portrait of Reuben Liew Yoon Sing,” ”Legacy: Portrait of Val,” “Girl with a Mink Pelt” and “Lois in My Landscape” all tell soulful visual stories of their subjects as important as any socialite or royalty.
The recognition of the marginalized and the outsider has a tremendous focus within the exhibition. Drawing from his “Tulsa” series, Larry Clark gives a sympathetic yet unsparing view of the underground drug culture in two black and white photographs, “Dead 1970 (Mann Aiming Gun)” and “Mann and Baby.”
In a similar manner, Shauna Frischkorn’s large format chromogenic prints in the series “Game Boys” and “McWorkers” capture the young and socially powerless. In these prints, their faces are larger than life, giving the viewer the opportunity to look into their eyes in an attempt to understand, and in some ways see ourselves.
“Jerry” by Scott Lifshutz is a striking oil painting on board, not of the subject’s face but instead of his back. Alluding to a society that has turned its back on the AIDS crisis, Lifshutz makes commentary on this political and public health crisis, as well as captures the dignity of the suffering subject.
“Looking In: Portraits and Their Stories” is a comprehensive look at the art of the portrait in its modern form and makes a strong case for its continued relevance through its incorporation of new techniques and perspectives.
“Looking In: Portraits and Their Stories” is on display until May 20 in the Main Gallery of the Susquehanna Art Museum at The Marty and Tom Philips Family Art Center, at 1401 N. Third St., Harrisburg.
The museum is open from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday to Saturday and noon to 5 p.m. Sunday. General admission is $8; $5 for teachers, seniors and veterans; and free for children younger than 12. Free parking is available at the rear of the building. For additional information on the museum and exhibitions, visit its website at www.SusquehannaArtMuseum.org.