Portraiture Reborn: Face Forward

May 16, 2009 § Leave a comment

Portraiture is the only genre that solely focuses on the individual subject – the artist only has the faces of their subject to evoke emotion and their individuality. Yes, a romantic concept, but let’s face it: the genre of portraiture is often associated with the idea of the ideal, the classical antiquity and the Renaissance, and therefore, deemed regressive, left in the sphere of so-called ‘fine art’; contemporary artists rarely work with the genre of portaiture. Then again, the exhibition Face Forward Contemporary Portraiture: Curator’s Choice says something different. It takes a look at the artists’ modern twists in approaching contemporary portraiture, featuring works of 16 artists, all of different medium and innovative style.

First piece I saw was Gordon Becker’s Blue Dancer, a highly realistic wood sculpture that was so theatrical that it made me let out a little yell. (I managed to make an elderly lady look at me suspiciously before trotting away from me.) But it was awesome! The extraordinary force of the dancer’s passionate movement is frozen in time with her dress wrapping around the air while her hair stands stiff in every direction. Wait, is that a bunch of branches and twigs pieced together? Yes. With leaves still on ‘em.

Erik Jerezano’s pieces were kinda puzzling when I first saw them. They looked like a massive doodling-gone-crazy – like something you’d draw after an hour of phone conversation with an annoying friend that won’t let you off the hook. I was confused: should that be called portraiture? Where’s the face? But then again, what is portraiture? It’s about representing the subject and their psychological dimension behind it – the subject is perceived by the artist, then captured on the canvas. I’m starting to get the concept of the exhibition.

One of my favourite was Ron Eady’s encaustic Sarah’s Web. It had a rather fresh feeling to it, despite the fact that it was done in the most conventional tradition of profile portraiture. Just like in traditional female portraits, she faces sideways – women were never allowed to gaze directly at the onlooker. However, the subject is nothing like a traditional female sitter; she’s a fierce goth chick with braided hair and heavy black and red makeup, all clashing with her pale complexion. It carries a strong undertone of gender issue: Have women really broken out of the frame, or are they still encaged inside, rebelling merely in outwardly appearance?

Face Forward really was a departure from the traditionally conceived genre of portraiture: yes, it’s about faces of people, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that these portraits show the actual faces per se… get it?
It’s so much more than just faces, it’s the psychological dimension behind these faces that matters. These portraits come to being as a result of the ephemeral dialogue between the artist and the subject… captured for eternity. Peoples’ faces change constantly from moment to moment; their expressions can speak a thousand words.

Through a variety of mediums that move outside of conventional portraiture, such as charcoal, stainless steel and bronze, this exhibition bridges the gap between traditional portraitures and modern portrayals of individual characters. No more looking sideways; now we face forward.

The exhibition Face Forward ran from September 12 to November 9, 2008 at The Varley Art Gallery.

Seowon Bang

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