BWW Reviews: STRIKING RESEMBLANCE Brings Honest, Insigtful Portraiture to the Zimmerli Museum
Striking Resemblance: The Changing Face of Portraiture dedicates itself to one of the most problematic genres in contemporary art. Naturally, a show like this is a hard sell in the era of selfie-driven narcissism; my guess is that even the average art critic spends more time languishing on Facebook or Twitter than enjoying outstanding 21st-century portraitists like Douglas Gordon and Jeff Wall. There's this sheer fatigue, and there's also the troubling and longer-lived hunch that portraiture is a relatively disingenuous and shallow art. As cultural critic Lee Siegel has sums up the situation, "a century and a half of modern and modernist culture have taught us, not just that appearances can be deceiving, but that they are the least trustworthy of phenomena available to our senses." Can all those smiling Facebook faces really be that happy? Can all those smiling faces in 18th-century family portraits, for that matter?
These were my qualms before I visited Striking Resemblance. But as soon as I set foot in the exhibition--cogently staged by curators Donna Gustafson and Susan Sidlauskas in one of the lower galleries of the Zimmerli Art Museum--many of those qualms fell away. The entries on display may be uneven: big names like Robert Rauschenberg, Andy Warhol, and Chuck Close alongside derivative compositions, piddling human interest, and unmemorable schmaltz. Through it all, though, there is a perceptive preoccupation with why we continue to live in and revel in a world of portraits--why we persist in handing down this potentially deceiving, potentially self-absorbed art to posterity. Yes, portaiture can be an exercise in inanity, but what can even inanity tell us about the society and the psychology of the portraitist? In a series of broad-reaching catalog essays, Gustaufson, Sidlauskas, and Seigel describe the lessons to be learned from portaits past; an hour with the better works in Striking Resemblance should be a lesson in why the genre endures.
Longtime visitors to the Zimmerli will recognize a fair number of the works that Gustafson and Sidlauskas have picked out; the museum has an especially thorough collection of Soviet dissident art, and iconoclasts such as Alexander Kosolapov, Gennady Guschin, and the duo Komar and Melamid are represented in the new exhibition. Because of this strong Eastern European presence, Striking Resemblance opened up a dialogue with one of the Zimmerli's just-closed exhibitions, Artists' Portraits: Putting a Face to the Name, and could enter into the same kind of conversation with the just-opened Odessa's Second Avant-Garde: City and Myth.