A protrait made from Jell-o? From neon? A likeness that actually moves and grimaces?
A new show at Washington Project for the Arts explores all these possibilities and more under the title "Portraits of Claudia" -- 14 variations on the face of Washington artist Claudia De Monte, all made by 14 fellow artists and friends.
The show was inspired by De Monte's own art, which is devoted entirely to nontraditional images of herself and her life. Following her lead, most of the artists have used highly inventive modes of portraiture. Only a few have used paint on canvas or photography.
Bill Lombardo made a line drawing of De Monte from which Mel Gusdorf Jr., of Baumgartner Co., made a rubber stamp, while Bob Epstein, ceramic artist and Corcoran faculty member, has turned De Monte's face into a pair of raku bookends. Bob Whittaker of Brookeville Photo in Brookeville, Md., has transformed a De Monte photograph into a jigsaw puzzle.
The most striking of all the variations on De Monte is "Talking Head," a wall-hung plaster life-mask upon which are projected color slides of the artist's face in action. The results are uncannily real, as she seems to talk, sing and even whistle. This work is the brainchild of two highly inventive Washington artists, Ben Lawless and Karen Loveland.
As is only fair, De Monte also gets a crack at her favorite subject -- herself -- in an adjoining exhibition of her most recent papier-mache "Claudia Dolls," which seem to parade through wall-drawings that represent various episodes in her life in Washington and New York, where she now lives.
A very different -- and considerably more profound -- show about portraiture is Paul Feinberg's photo-essay entitled "Friends," on view downstairs at WPA. These portraits of pairs of friends examine the special qualities of friendship.
Quotes from Feinberg's subjects often provide ironies. Psychiatrist Norman Tamarkin, for example, says the following of his friendship with macho-actor Jack Warden: "When I'm not working I don't want someone around whose ego is real fragile. I don't want people who are dependent on my feelings about them . . . for their own esteem. He doesn't need me at all." Tamarkin then seems to reveal some dependency-needs of his own by adding, "He [Warden] likes me and finds me interesting, which is more flattering than being needed."
There are poignant moments. Five-year-old Lisa Orenstein's affection for her contemporary, Peter Thompson, is honest and uncomplicated: "He plays when I want to play, and he plays on things that I want to play sometimes. When you don't have a best friend, there is nobody to play with really." As if to prove the point, that photo is hung opposite a portrait of Zachariah D. Blackistone, depicted all by himself at 108. He recalls that his best friend from his childhood was Tom Neal, but says of the present "All my friends are gone now. I can't remember any of the others except for Tom Neal."
This photo-essay has just been published by Quick Fox press in a book that does not do justice to the original photographs, but makes its points just the same. It is available in the bookshop at WPA, located at 1227 G St. NW.