The portrait really didn't start out to be art. It started out to be primarily a record.
It was a way to flatter royalty, chronicle history, praise religion or duplicate one's own handsome visage.
Now, it is no longer simply a document. It is also a means of expression that goes beyond the concerns of the persons being painted. And an exhibition that opens today at the Washington Women's Art Center, 1821 Q St. NW, takes on the task of showing what some of those expressions are.
The show was juried by Alice Neel, one of America's leading contemporary portrait painters. Neel's own work comes from the knife's edge of vision. Her figures are so sharp, her intuitions about the person behind the face so cutting that her works often mesmerize and stun.
From the outset it should be said that none of the works here matches the standard set for portraits by Neel herself, and none of her work is exhibited. But for the most part the quality of the work is quite good and the show serves as a way to sample a variety of the portrait work now being done in this area. There are more than 50 works on view by more than 30 artists, culled from about 300 pieces by 150 artists from which Neel selected this show.
It is called "Portraits for Alice Neel," but the tribute is in the nature of the exhibition -- the art of the portrait. It is not an homage to the artist, but to her choice of subject, and if imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, then the show is a paean of praise.
The variety of approaches is remarkable. Some, such as Pamela Marley Barr's graphite on paper drawing "For Piero," are almost classical approaches to the face. In Barr's work, pliant lines define an intense face with almond eyes that fills the small square surface almost completely with an elegance and grace. This is most certainly a real person, for the emotion and quiet in the face is beyond imagination.
On the other hand, Anne Dawson's gouache on paper, "Bird Woman," is an abstraction. It is a portrait only in the sense of emotion, rather than in the literal depiction of any person. The "Bird Woman" is a red figure with a pick-ax shaped head, and only a small blue eye with a bright yellow center that indicates the presence of a face.
There is one completely faceless portrait, Barbara Johnson's oil painting of "The Waittress," in which a full figure faces forward, jean-clad, hand on hip. She is a stereotype, employed in the kind of service position that most people take for granted and see as peopled by anonymous souls rather than anyone with real concerns, real faces.
Emalie Lorens' oil on canvas, "Claudia and Masked Claudia," depicts a straightforward young woman seated in a big arm chair, while behind her lurks a dog-faced animal that looks down from behind the chair. It is the title that presents the questions. "Claudia and Masked Claudia." If the figures somehow represent the same person underneath, then the issue is which one is the real Claudia? It's two sides of the same person -- Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.
There are, too, examples of self-portraits, although none here is particularly outstanding. But some other works of note include Mary Carfagno's "Becky," a full-length hard-edged portrait of a determined looking figure; Henry Gerstenberg's "Butterflies Are Free" photograph of a face reflected through a grid of mirrors; Barbara Bjanes' "Geri," a heavy nude that combines the approaches of Larry Rivers and Pierre Bonnard; Marylou Hartman's superb etching of the top-hatted "Bowler Man"; and Melissa Widerkehr's graceful "Daphne." The exhibition is on view through Jan. 24. The gallery is open Tuesdays through Fridays, 11 to 6; Saturdays and Sundays, 11 to 4. Closed Mondays.