October 21, 2008

HPAC offers not just one Pretty Face, but many

A visit to the Hyde Park Art Center’s (HPAC) newest exhibition, Not Just Another Pretty Face, will have you confused why the patronage system isn’t used more often. Back in January, the HPAC held what they called a “Public Salon” to facilitate relationships between artists and potential supporters. Now, nine months later, more than 70 of these relationships have spawned some pretty adventurous artworks. They are on display on the first floor of the HPAC, where pristine white walls and high ceilings allow the art to stand on its own with no contextualizing descriptions to bias the viewer’s opinion. It’s just what Gertrude Stein, in her own salon, would have wanted for Picasso.

Perhaps because the exhibition’s title was determined prior to the artworks’ creation, and because it seems natural that a patron’s persona might inspire the art he funds, a majority of the pieces in Pretty Face are portraits. The first few by Lexi Coffee and Joanne Scott look like saccharine photographs of people’s children that should rightly remain tucked away in their wallets. But these works only heighten the viewer’s appreciation for the more intriguing portraits, such as those by Judith Rafael, which follow. Rafael paints children, too, but hers are docile figures, self-aware and staring straight at us. In “Floating: Mallory Grace, Brian, Ava, Kate and Grant,” we see five kids canoeing on a lake dyed pink by sunset; “Ned and Chapin” shows two boys and a dog standing in an empty park holding a guitar and a basketball. Unlike the preceding portraits, these are scenes that situate their figures within spaces—a lake, an empty park—making us feel we can better contextualize them both geographically and demographically.

Nearby, Jennifer Greenburg’s photograph “Elizabeth, Tom, Asher and Estelle” is a really neat family portrait. The figure closest to the camera, presumably Asher, rides a plastic tricycle on a wraparound porch. But he appears fuzzy because Greenburg’s lens is focused on the boy’s parents sitting a few feet behind him. Elizabeth cradles baby Estelle as if preparing to breastfeed her. Tom, the husband in this nuclear family, has no baby or kiddie transportation as a prop and is left to grip his knees with uneasy hands. The camera is situated on the corner of the porch, positioned so that part of the house’s brick façade juts out from the right side of the frame. This has the effect of making us feel we’ve caught the family by surprise. Have we crept up on them? Are they always nearly posing, just short of permanently camera-ready? Or does their unnatural pose rather signify an awareness of being photographed? These questions are complicated by the fact that the little boy, Asher, a title character, is out of focus, unusual for any member of a staged group portrait. The staged quality of this photograph underlines the feeling that something is strange about this family.

“Anne’s Hair I­III,” a worthwhile watercolor portrait series by Jackie Kazarian that depicts all of the subject’s body save for her hair, uses repeated images that suggest the influence of Andy Warhol. Ron Gordon’s photo collages satisfyingly reconstitute a whole by recombining its parts, like a more methodical variant of David Hockney’s technique in “Pearblossom Highway.” When Gordon turns his lens on people, as in “Family Portrait,” you can’t help but wonder what the relationship is between style and subject. Gordon’s collage technique places the composite photos very close to one another but never allows them to quite touch, creating a fractured and fragmented quality that is perhaps intended to characterize the family.

The second gallery of the exhibit contains more mixed media and is generally more surprising. Theodore C. Feaster’s stained glass “Lady Sings the Blues” is a clever and unexpected homage to cubism. Elevating Billy Holiday to a kind of sainthood, its surreal and faceless figures demonstrate art’s function: To remind us of the specificities of the time in which we live.

Some of the works on display do not depict people at all, patrons or otherwise. John Himmelfarb’s assemblage piece “Twenty Story High,” a mixed media piece using library catalogue cards, looks like a series of gut-instinct responses to the stories in J. D. Salinger’s 1953 Nine Stories and Richard Yeats’s 1961 collection 11 Kinds of Loneliness. The card denoting Salinger’s “A Perfect Day for Bananafish” is marked with outlines of a handgun and a fish in unsophisticated marker. It’s enough to make the viewer wish all books came accompanied by illustrations. This show should attract an audience open to this kind of mixing of different media. Gertrude Stein may be long dead, but it turns out that salons still produce highly worthwhile results.