BWW Reviews: STRIKING RESEMBLANCE Brings Honest, Insightful 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.
Striking Resemblance itself divides up into three major sections. Early in the installation, portaits of lone or almost-alone subjects predominate. A wall with a hodgepodge of invidual faces welcomes you in, and grandiose, concept-heavy artworks like Robert Rauschenberg's Autobiography and Do Ho Suh's Uni-Form/s: Self Portrait/s: All My 39 Years dominate the galleries farther on. Still, don't walk past the simpler pleasures, from coy and colorful compositions by Helen Lundeberg and Alex Katz to a cluster of eye portraits (yes, eye portaits), both Romantic era originals and 21st-century updatings by Tabitha Vevers.
Next comes a survey of double portraits and doubled portrait subjects. With its easy ironies (Caviar by Kosolapov, a much better satirist than this lets on) and its equally easy sentimentalities (the bronze Clasped Hands of Robert and Elizabeth Barrett Browning, nice artifact and not much else), this section can be a letdown. Can be; after all, all those single portraits prime your attention to expression, gesture, detail. Though they aren't the most astonishing portraits on display, photographs such as Identical Twins by Diane Arbus and Tiergarten, Berlin, Germany by Rineke Dijkstra reveal an impressive range of expression when subjected to such scrutiny.
The final section, a consideration of group and collective portraits, draws everything to a resounding finish. You might spend some time perusing Red Grooms's Cedar Bar diorama, especially if you're versed in Abstract Expressionism; key painters and critics from the movement put in appearances, while a big-headed Jackson Pollock figurine looms over the whole assembly. Grooms can put together a fun portrait of an era, but his work can seem small and silly alongside Vladimir Kupriyanov's monumental Cast Me Not Away from Your Presence, with its stuttered frames and inscrutable subjects, and alongside Warhol's revelatory Screen Tests. For these short videos, Warhol recorded celebrities and almost-celebrities such as Dennis Hopper, Lou Reed, and the tragic Edie Sedgwick at close range, a process that resulted in masterpieces of stress and spontaneity. They are, quite possibly, the most affecting artworks Warhol ever produced.
Yet one of the selections that affected me the most might not even qualify as art. On your way out, you might walk past something that looks like a table display--though if you look closer, you'll see that it's 445 tiny black-and-white portraits of a middle-aged man, all from the 1930s and 1940s. The artist for this one remains identified, but the work is as ironically banal and immersively thought-provoking as Warhol at his best. That middle-aged man appears in a variety of coats and ties, sometimes smiling unpleasantly, sometimes sucking a pipe, always (despite the smallness of the photos) appearing too close for comfort. Eighty years from now, perhaps we will look back at today's Instagram photos and wince in much the same way. But for now we can look at those 445 permutating portraits and wince, and think, and wonder how a huge disturbing mass of needless headshots can be this poignant.