Editors' pick

Likeness: Interpretations of Portraiture

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Likeness: Interpretations of Portraiture photo
Jeff Huntington

Editorial Review

Each portrait tells a story of its own
By Stephanie Merry
Friday, August 24, 2012

It follows that portraits, like people, should come in all shapes and sizes. Examples run the gamut from Goya’s unflattering representation of King Charles IV to Chuck Close’s 1967-68 self-portrait, massive and gray, with a cigarette dangling from his mouth; or the twists and turns of Alexander Calder’s Babe Ruth wire sculpture to the earth-toned cubist interpretations of human forms from the paintbrush of Picasso.

The eclectic nature of portraiture is nothing new, but it is still worth a ponder, and the place to do it is Alexandria’s Athenaeum with the show “Likeness/Interpretations of Portraiture.” The 19 works on display, courtesy of contemporary artists working in the region, have one big commonality: They all hang on the walls of the airy space. Beyond that, the pieces range from representational to abstract, oil on canvas to epoxy resin on wood, political to sentimental.

It’s difficult to breathe fresh air into such a long-standing genre, but Tomomi Nitta makes a bid for utter originality with “Untitled Portrait 11,” using oil and crystal powder on linen. The piece blends abstraction and naturalism, depicting what appears to be a woman with long, dark hair wearing a blue-gray tank top. What’s noteworthy about the subject is that her face is free of features, with a just few flesh-toned brush strokes where eyes, a nose and a mouth would be. The effect is one of blurry vision, but it also opens the door for hypothesizing. Viewers always bring their own preconceptions to a piece, but rarely is this demonstrated in such a concrete way, as the depiction begs visitors to fill in the blanks. It feels almost natural to look at the painting and see all of the features that aren’t in fact there.

Beside that piece hangs “Spiracle” by Jeff Huntington, which, at first glance, looks purely naturalistic. A young boy in a dragonfly-adorned silk jacket sits with a severe gaze fixed on the viewer. The young man’s arms dangle over the edges of armrests, and his hands are painted in impeccable detail, each vein and knuckle meticulously rendered. But as the eye travels upward, strange anomalies emerge. For starters, the boy has a blurry gray abyss where his Adam’s apple should be. Less obvious but equally unusual is the boy’s hair, which initially looks like a wild afro but upon closer inspection appears to mimic the wavelike perimeter of a miter saw.

“John” by Katherine Stankewicz is a less fantastical vision. It would be easy to miss the work, as it barely announces itself. A large rectangle of white paper contains three rows, each with three tiny floating pencil-drawn heads. It turns out that all of the faces are one person: the artist’s grandfather, a man she never met. Each miniature figure replicates a photo, right down to the scale. The sample provides a mix of hats and expressions, plus the chance for viewer and artist to get to know the subject.

Meanwhile, Megan Marlatt deviates from real life with “Portrait of Ms. Oyl as a Rembrandt,” a traditional look at Popeye’s beloved. The circular canvas shows the distinctive Olive with her wide, lidless eyes, arched brows and round nose. A millstone ruff -- the accordion-like round collar popular in the 17th century -- encircles her neck, adding gravitas to the doll-like figure.

The effect is funny and compelling, demanding a pause to consider the mix of high- and lowbrow elements. It feels like a departure in the show, but then, all of the works feel a little like artistic detours. You might say each of these things is not like the others.

The story behind the work
By Stephanie Merry
Friday, August 24, 2012

Capturing a subject’s likeness poses many challenges, but Eric Finzi seems to thrive under pressure. Using epoxy resin -- a toxic, plasticlike material -- means donning a special suit and working while tethered to a hose that supplies fresh air. Finzi mixes pigments into the resin while it heats up. Once it hits the desired temperature, it’s only a matter of minutes before the liquid becomes hard as rock, so he has to work quickly, applying with syringes and needles. (He’s also a dermatological surgeon.) This isn’t the medium for the exacting artist; the liquid continues to move after it’s applied, meaning each work is an attempt to control chaos, Finzi says. As a result, with pieces such as “Humfrey,” a glossy portrait of his late father-in-law, he doesn’t know how a piece will look until it has dried. Sometimes, he says, he’ll reach his studio to find that a subject’s face has “floated off the painting,” which means it’s time to get out the hammer and chisel.