Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Exhibition: "The Portrait: Painted and Personal."

Reggie (She Cried to Him.)

Giustina Surbone

oil on canvas

Tabla Rasa whose name means “blank slate,” is about to celebrate its fourth year of operation on May first.  The name is appropriate, due to the gallery’s ground breaking role in Brooklyn’s Sunset Park, a neighborhood with a growing population of artists.  The setting’s talents and opportunities are surely still underexploited.

The show about to open at Tabla Rasa, The Portrait: Painted and Personal, was curated by Robin Ross and Giustina Surbone, two of the participating artists.  It brings us the work of 5 very self directed artists whose collective oeuvre is both individual and compatible.  The show also presents alternate concepts of the portrait, a thing that plays a central role in peoples’ lives, but which has a set and standardized function for much of humanity.  These portraits are art, and exercise all the freedom of choice to which they are so entitled.  These practitioners may not “place the shine on the tip of the nose, as [they] do on the arms of the chair.”

For example, Robin Gaynes-Bachman, in her large self portrait, shows us an image of the utmost artificiality.  This will perhaps be inescapable to art produced in the medium of polymer and phosphorescent pigment on vinyl, as these are.  The subject’s hair is of a brash green, and the colors elsewhere are similarly strident.  The artist clearly eschews all description in the ordinary sense of the word.

The other large piece by this artist that caught my eye was “Sorel In Love.”  In it, she made the interesting choice to subdivide the image into large blocks of color, each of which is covered with an evenly paced all-over pattern.  This suggests the marriage of traditional textile pattern with her modern age materials.

Interestingly, the pieces in the show that come closest to “straight” portraiture also belong to Robin Gaynes-Bachman.  They are in the section with her smaller pieces, a few of which show toddlers, a subject seemingly far away from progressive art.  Yet these toddlers (“Laverne’s Son as Baby,” “Paschanti as Baby,” and “Victor as Baby,”) drawn in bold, somewhat awkward contour lines, in the medium of polymer and marker on vinyl, remain evocative of the children’s rounded forms and tenderness, while conveying an unsentimental vision.

The human face’s power to engage us probably guarantees that there’s no such thing as a truly expressionless face.  Yet, though the giant face of a corpulent black man that engulfs the canvas in Giustina Surbone’s “Reggie (She Cried to Him)” might be described as showing a nondescript expression, some elicited emotion is inescapable.    The emphatic form-making and the tightly knit paint surface, conveying the weight of a massive bronze cast, may be the purveyor of whatever we feel.  And, of course, titles can be great sign posts for the story being conveyed.  Before this painting I asked myself, ‘she cried to him, and, what, he gave off no expression?’

Other pieces I found notable by this artist were the following.  “Mighty Mighty,” another large oil depicting a very fat woman holding flowers, which she wields with a step forward, as though about to thrust them at the viewer.  Again, the weight of the artists’ form building conveys the great presence at which she excels.  In “Drag #3: De-Dragging,” oil on canvas, a crossdresser's voluminous breasts balloon above the top edge of his corset.  He is exposed, but distractedly alone in the world, in transition, as he removes false eyelashes from his eye.  And, finally, “Emptiness & Anxiety,” a small oil, showing another transitory movement.  Her gaze turning to the viewer’s left, her mouth placed up to what might be a small hand held mirror, this woman’s movement might be the true subject of this portrait, as the character of a person’s features might be the subject of a more ordinary portrait.  Also interesting in this image are the hands, which claim a greater degree of focus than the surrounding forms due to their having been collaged onto the image.

“Inside the Green Drum,” an oil on canvas, struck me as the most successful of Robin Ross’s three large images in this show.  Here Ms. Ross builds up her surface, as she will, in amorphous waves of color.  The figure in the piece, ensconced within surroundings of indeterminate space, conveys some unnamed emotional state.  The cloud-like hues, reaching a crescendo in a flash of yellow light that is the figure, are all of a piece.  

Ms. Ross’s smaller pieces, all executed in oils and digital prints on wooden cigar boxes, deliver a concentrated visual payload, each succinct in its message.  There is “Taunt,” in which a woman, nude, bent forward at the waist, presenting her buttocks, seems at once sexually inviting and convulsed by some emotional upheaval.  The figure’s spatial orientation is ambiguous, and I found myself turning my head to see whether the painting was turned on its side, as I observed the piece.  It is, perhaps, this very quality that makes for its range of emotions.  “Graces,” shows two female dancers wearing what appear to be grass skirts, both on their toes with blue point shoes.  They are seen squarely from the back, both backs unclad.  So, this double portrait, which shows the faces not at all, has the two bodies’ movement as the element conveying identity.  That may seem to make no sense, but, recently, I was alone in a room, absorbed in a certain task from which I did not look up when someone entered the room.  The person was one of 15 individuals likely to have entered the room.  It was the shuffle of the person’s feet that announced to me, without a doubt, the person’s identity.  So, in art, as in life, we sometimes know a person by some aspect or quality other than the appearance of the person’s face.

Audrey Anastasi, with whom I spoke at the exhibition, explained to me that “Red Season,” a medium sized oil showing two women, one reclining behind the other, upright figure, was the first of the paintings she had executed with the left hand only.  Ms. Anastasi, who is right handed, took this on as an experiment to free up her handling.  Though some of her brushstrokes are crude, painting from the shoulder, rather than the wrist, has freed her to achieve a very forceful delivery.  Her figures, as evidenced by the entries in this show, are ambitious and massive, and completely unfettered by extraneous detail.   

In “Mythic Waters,” a dark skinned beautiful woman with platinum blonde curly hair presents the bare back of her torso to the viewer.  Both her fists, raised to the two upper corners of the canvas, are covered with African masks that have dual identities as boxing gloves.  This detail was suggested to the painter by the sitter’s own struggles as an African American in our society.  Here, again, Ms. Anastasi’s paint remains exuberant, fluid and sensual in the extreme, and her color lush.

“Cadaver,” Anastasi’s smallest oil in the show, is a macabre presentation of a deceased person, centrally, and vertically placed on the surface.  Paradoxically, Ms. Anastasi, relies on her habitual ease of handling, making a joy of the act of looking, despite the presence of death.  The indeterminate space she has used elsewhere remains in evidence here. 

Nana Deleplanque’s many masterful contributions to the show are all acrylics.  In “Sonia in Blue,” one of the small pictures, the artist does a breathtaking job with her direct, unlabored paint application.  She further arranges her surface with a sequence of ample shapes, which move the eye about, yet gives the eye a rest in the deft distribution of her visible white canvas, reds and neutrals.

In “The Emissary” Ms. Deleplanque’s figure is recognizable as a quotation of a Gauguin Tahitian figure.  Quotations of figures from other art recur in her work, but she makes them her own.  Next to the person’s figure a cow appears; a marvel of direct, deliciously casual paint application.  “Sonia,” another large image, is another marvel of directness.  This picture derives power from its basic black and white palette.  Six red spots, 4 on the sitter's lapels, 2 on her lips and right pupil, direct the viewer’s focus to the face.

In short, this is an exciting, coherent show, but one with much variety.  I hope many, many people will see it.  Tabla Rasa stands to make an important contribution to the Brooklyn art scene if it continues to mount such energetic and imaginative shows as this one.

The Portrait: Painted and Personal will be on view at the Tabla Rasa Gallery, 224 48 Street (between 2nd & 3rd Avenues), Brooklyn, NY, 11220.  The show runs from March 4 to April 3, 2009.  The opening reception is on Wednesday, March 4, from 6:00 - 8:00 pm. 

Please note: the gallery will host an artists talk titled, "What Inspires what is Personal?" on Saturday, March 21, at 3 P. M..

Admission to the Tabla Rasa Gallery is free.  Gallery hours are: 1:00 - 5:00 P. M., Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays.  Call 718.833.9100 for special viewing appointments, and for events and schedule updates.

Transportation: from Manhattan, "D" or "N" express train to 36 Street in Brooklyn (3 stops from Manhattan), cross platform, and take "R" train one stop to 45th Street.  Street parking is also available.

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  1. sounds l,kike a great show, i will definitely go to see it!

  2. Then, by all means, feel free to tell everyone you think might be interested about this show.