“Reference of Frame”

I review an art exhibit, at AmCon–and this exhibit closes at the end of December, so go soon!

In the past several years photographers Claire Felicie and Lalage Snow have independently published pictures of soldiers taken before, during, and after their service in Afghanistan. It’s easy to project one’s own beliefs about the war, and war in general, onto these portraits; still, they offer fascinating portrayals of how people can change. I wasn’t expecting the frequency with which the soldier in the final, “after” photo looks much younger than he had before the war. During their service the soldiers typically looked focused and grim, but afterward they often looked as if they’d been knocked off-balance, slightly lost, questioning.

The same desire to know how our experiences change us, and whether these interior changes can be read accurately from our faces or whether we can hide them, motivates most of the best portraits in the National Gallery of Art’s exhibit “The Serial Portrait: Photography and Identity in the Last One Hundred Years,” on display through December 31. The exhibit is a collection of series, each one following the same subject through the years—or, in the more gimmicky series, simply through many costume changes.

The exhibit seems to divide into three parts. The final section shows recent work in which photographers try on various personae: Gillian Wearing wears incredibly unsettling masks to look like famous self-portraits by Diane Arbus and Robert Mapplethorpe; Nikki S. Lee dresses up as a “yuppie” or a “lesbian” and embeds herself briefly in some urban subculture in a combination of art and sociological tourism. The images in this section create a hall of cultural mirrors: What do you think of what Lee thinks of what other people think of lesbians? These pictures represent anxiety about identity, but they rarely get beyond their originating idea. They’re headlines, not stories.

The middle section explores experimental approaches to the portrait, especially the self-portrait. Ilse Berg catches herself in mirrors or portrays herself only in shadow. Lee Friedlander catches himself reflected in a shop window, or, cheekily, appears as the looming shadow on the back of a blonde woman’s head. Francesca Woodman dissolves from her portrait like a ghost, or stands, monumental and faceless, portraying a caryatid. Blythe Bohnen swings her head from side to side, or in circles, to create weird time-lapse images in which the top face looks young and the bottom face looks older, or the features collapse into a mass of putty. Some of these experiments focus on the act of photography, while others simply exploit the possibilities of the camera for manipulating images. Some of these images are funny and others creepy, occasionally even haunting.

But by far the best section of the exhibit is the first one. This section best justifies the title “The Serial Portrait,” since here the artists really do follow their subjects over years and even decades. Time gives these portraits immense poignance, and the various non-naturalistic techniques used by the artists work to enhance the underlying human story, rather than being experimental for its own sake.

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