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The 'Self-Portrait' allows unnumbered possibilities. In earlier ages, it presented the artist as he or she wished to be seen, whether as self-promotion or as a working out of the artist's public role. With the Renaissance, personality came to the fore, and, in the nineteenth century, self-portraiture increasingly became self-examination, a psychological study (although earlier examples of this inevitably exist). And there, the artist can either accept what he perceives prima facie, or explore an alter ego, a projected persona. What captures our attention in the latter approach, has given birth to volumes on Michelangelo, Rembrandt, van Gogh. The self-portrait, like artists' portraits of fellow artists, exerts a special fascination. Romanticism tends to attribute the creative artist with some exceptional insight, and, turned upon itself, we expect that insight to perform revelations for us all. It is a modern myth, but it is nonetheless a myth with power.
All of which makes "SELF-PORTRAITS 2000: A Twentieth Anniversary Celebration" -- a showing of 66 artists, now at Printworks Gallery, Chicago -- an exhibition of exceptional interest. Printworks Gallery conceived the theme over a year ago, and requested that the artists -- all of whom have had associations with the gallery -- restrain their enthusiasms to a vertical format on 12 by 10 inch paper. That format highlights each individual work's content and quality, and has made it possible to accommodate all 66 artists. The gallery visitor has until February 17, 2000, to take it in, and judge -- just as each artist judges self; just as the artist would be judged. And a visitor, who stands apart, may yet make his own discoveries -- for no one ever sees himself as others see.
An artist may choose not to reveal himself. And, in a very contemporary twist, he may further choose not to reveal how he wishes to be perceived. He may in fact play with the very expectations of the genre, that is, poke fun at the viewer for requiring such. Ed Paschke is among several artists in this exhibition who warmed to the call and has produced multiple self-portraits. (They will change in rotation as the show continues.) Paschke has always sought to seize particularly dynamic poses and provocative contexts for his art, and his self-portrait here is no exception. It slips aside conventions -- the artist anticipates his audience, and defies. Paschke appears in a fine point rendering, tongue out toward the viewer, a lotus shadow on his forehead. A photo of this artist does appear in Spirited Visions (1991), and he is profiled as well in Chicago Art Scene (1998), and several other major monographs. Ed Paschke studied at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, and now teaches at Northwestern University, Evanston, Illinois.
Paula Campbell portrays herself with an uninhibited, more congenial high spirit: she offers a likely parody of her viewer, further thwarting the self-portrait as revelatory study, and that in itself offers an insight into the artist. A delightful insight. Here, Campbell forms her hands into mimed 'eyeglasses,' mirroring a common youthful gesture, and poking fun at the spectator -- a 'so look at me, looking back at you looking at me' rejoinder.
A similar address to the viewer is implied in Riva Lehrer's self-portrait. The artist's oversized eyeglasses suggest that, here, art in its turn examines the visitor, one-on-one and through frames. At the upper third of this piece, a female form at left, and a male at right, wade waist-deep in stylized waves. These waves extend beyond image, out onto the frame; bridging the art and the space from which it is viewed, and furthering a sense of presence between observer and artist. The impression of rapport between viewer and portrait is thus heightened: for both the viewer and the creator, the image's added couple seems peripheral, an 'afterthought.' The long braid of hair which drapes the artist's right shoulder (canvas left), lends an almost schoolgirl prankishness to the focal portrait. Riva Lehrer received her BFA from University of Cincinnati and studied at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. She is currently featured in Art Scene, Chicago 2000 (2000).
A certain youthful exuberance appears yet again in Judith Raphael's self-portrait, where a Lilliputian girl in boxing gloves takes her stand on the tip of the artist's nose: a situation obviously unexpected and met with the bearer's own perplexity. These portraits jest with the visitor who arrives expecting a revelation of the artist's soul and is turned to consider the artist's transient examiner: the gallery-goer. Viewer scrutinizes artist, artist is self-conscious of the viewer -- just as Judith Raphael discovers her tiny pugilist. It is as Charles Baudelaire in the preface to his Les Fleurs du Mal declared: "You! hypocrite lecteur! - mon semblable - mon frere!"
Philip Pearlstein, in contrast, has produced a laconic, direct image of the artist, withholding emotion and overt commentary. Pearlstein is renowned for a realist approach which often treats human form itself as still-life; but in this portrait one sees the artist who turned from fashionable abstractions to pursue his own highly individual, and initially much debated, direction in art. In Pearlstein's work, realities are presented with such dispassion that the viewer must struggle to arrive at judgement. The artist withholds even self-irony. It is realism beyond illusion.
Artists of our age may be subtly evasive about their self, or more explicitly defensive: that is, the self-portrait can as much conceal as reveal; and this may well be implied in James Valerio's self-portrait. Here, the artist covers his face with both hands, all the while furtively peering out from between slightly splayed fingers. Artists have long placed their subjects under scrutiny, and in this showing, with tables turned, one senses a new self-consciousness, a very modern unease among many of those portrayed, the artists themselves.
There are very fine works in "Self-Portraits 2000," however, which do seem to forget the viewer: works for which the act of creation foremost absorbs the artist. Susanna Coffey offers in self-portrait a serious, realistic vision through a freely worked watercolor technique which adds and allows wet runs and streaks to intersect her image. An emotive sense in Coffey's self-portrait strongly evokes the self-images of Kathe Kollwitz. Coffey is featured in Spirited Visions: Portraits of Chicago Artists by Patty Carroll (1991), and in that volume, art critic, James Yood, commented: "...this is not expressionism in the service of anarchy; rather, it is a wielding of paint as a metaphor for the liberation of self." Coffey's portrait is direct.
At times a sense of self extends beyond the individual. Margaret Wharton is among the founders of Artemisia, Chicago's first cooperative gallery for women. Best known as a sculptor, Wharton imbues her work with a mystical sense of women's particular attributes, although she has ventured into more immediate agendas as well. Wharton's self-portrait, excellently rendered in a montage format, offers the artist as one with lips sewn shut. This focus is framed -- bounded -- by four corner pieces of clustered grape leaves, reminiscent of Victorian picture borders. Margaret Wharton is featured in Spirited Visions (1991). There, James Yood noted: "She does more than mix media, she mixes metaphors, states of being, and systems of definition." Wharton studied at the University of Maryland and the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.
There are works in this exhibition which reveal a lyric sense of self. Claire Prussian's self-portrait rests in a green central focus, about which flowers and leaves are scattered. A unity of image is strengthened by the red outer border of the piece. Prussian is featured in Spirited Visions (1991), which offers a photograph of the artist, as well as work and a commentary by James Yood. A different use of flower motif is found in Maria Tomasula's piece. In her grey pencil rendering, the artist, surrounded by blossoming flowers and leaves, peers directly out. There is a clean, proficient grace here. Before Tomasula's direct pose, one has the sense of being both dispassionate viewer, and a presence mirrored within the artist.
Richard Willenbrink is represented by a figurative watercolor in which a classically-posed female nude stands in the background (image right). This artist is well-known for his nudes, male and female, which are frequently surrounded by props and set in allegorical situations. Willenbrink's mythological themes have often emerged in contemporary dress... or undress. This artist's paintings of local art personalities enjoy wide appreciation; and he has previously done a number of nude self-portraits. Richard Willenbrink received his BFA from the University of Notre Dame, Indiana, and his MFA from Northern Illinois University, De Kalb. He is represented in Art in Chicago: 1945-1995 (1996). In this same exhibition, James Wells exhibits a kindred figurative approach, but with a spontaneous, improvisational sense to his realistically rendered study.
Whereas Margaret Wharton's self-portrait focuses on a silenced voice, Linda Kramer portrays herself with a veil-like blindfold, but in this work, it is a symbolic baffle through which the artist nonetheless sees. Kramer has done a wide range of self-portraits, and the artist's statement for Art Scene, Chicago 2000 (2000) notes that these have covered "sexual identity, historical references, aspects of cultural style and beauty, agelessness and aging...." In that book, the artist commented upon her intense focus:
It is an approach which forms one of the major interests in "SELF-PORTRAITS 2000: A Twentieth Anniversary Celebration." Linda Kramer studied at Scripps College, Claremont, California; and at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. She is also profiled in Spirited Visions: Portraits of Chicago Artists by Patty Carroll (1991).
Richard Hass is well-known as a muralist, and intaglio printmaker. His oils and watercolors often focus on architectural subjects, reflecting his mural art. In this figurative pastel, a three-section bay window of the background forms an appropriate framing strategy for the artist's self-portrait. Hass studied at the University of Wisconsin and the University of Minnesota.
The watercolor self-portrait by Richard Hull specifically brings to the fore an awareness that self-portraiture unites artist and subject: the observed is also the observer, and in a sense, this seems a discreet caution to the casual outside observer. Hull's deliberative self-image engulfs and enframes his smaller mirror reflection. The two images center within an evident wire filigree, a looking-glass framing -- image and reflection both captured in material substance -- both, however, subject to the artist's intents, conscious as well as intuitive and subjective. Within his composition, interpretation is shown to be as much an actuality as is fact -- a paradox to Plato's Cave. Hull's art and career is treated in Art in Chicago: 1945-1995 (1996).
James Mesple is represented by a figurative self-portrait, but one ringed by figures, more allusions than personages. Here, the artist holds a thin-necked flask, an Aladdin's lamp-like form, while about him five figures are conjured by his brush. At left, one views a feral, satyr-like figure; at right a monk-like form, while in the upper image are three classical faces. Figure, form, and face here seem like masks of possibilities: the artist's tool and trade. Much of his art has employed distortion of figures, vivid color, and a precise, considered draughtsmanship. In subject matter, Mesple often joins past and present -- Renaissance, Medieval, architectural classicism, Middle Eastern textile designs, legacies and myth -- in what might be termed a Postmodern approach. Often, the artist's own hand-crafted, painted frames form an integral part of his work. His self-portrait seems both representation of the artist, and a precis of his art. James Mesple studied at the University of Missouri and the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. He is also featured in Art Scene, Chicago 2000.
Richard Hunt, while best known as a sculptor, is proficient in lithography. Hunt's self-portrait employs a loose, calligraphic brush line to economically suggest the barest contours of the artist's face, a choice which approaches caricature. In this piece, a finely misted gold-spray contour works as spot color to further define the head. Hunt studied at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, and appears in Spirited Visions: Portraits of Chicago Artists by Patty Carroll (1991), as well as in Art in Chicago: 1945-1995 (1996).
Several self-portraits in "SELF-PORTRAITS 2000" have individual titles, but that of Robert Lostutter, meticulously executed in pencil, incorporates a full free verse...
Lostutter adds far more: a running meditation on the self as seen through the artist's vision and not merely sight. In the 1950s, Lostutter's attention to preliminary drawings and recourse to glazes came about in part because of his interest in painter, John Rogers Cox, who stressed discipline and technique. Although linked with the Chicago Imagists, Lostutter is very much concerned with method and materials, and has done extensive preparation for his works, often reworking a piece in progress. Lostutter is profiled in Spirited Visions (1991), where art critic James Yood commented: "His art is a splendid seduction, pleasing our desire to witness great pictorial gifts, and then subtly undercutting that pleasure by rendering a world where something seems decidedly wrong." In his self-portrait, Robert Lostutter achieves a balance between the visual and the verbal. Lofstutter studied at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.
Phylis Bramson has chosen a brightly colored watercolor approach for a arrangement of balloons, the lowest central one of which bears a face, with head in hands. The overall theme is Japanese-inspired, although the traditional Asian hair cut here recalls a similar style popular in Berlin of the 1920s. Bramson's self-portrait reflects her enduring interest in Oriental philosophy, as well as her concern with the artist as observer; in this case, as examiner of self-image. Bramson took an active interest in mime and theater in the late 1970s; her art has explored women in theatrical roles, and her portrait in this showing seems as if it might be a visual for Puccini's Madama Butterfly. In much of her work, she has forged a private mythology. Bramson is featured in Spirited Visions: Portraits of Chicago Artists by Patty Carroll (1991), where critic James Yood noted her "high-keyed color, expressive brushwork and topsy-turvy compositions...." Bramson is also featured in Art in Chicago: 1945-1995. Phylis Bramson studied at the University of Wisconsin and the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.
Roland Ginzel's painting offers a contour profile filled by wide bands of strong reds, browns and blues which race diagonally from upper left to lower right. It is a self-portrait which combines figurative outline with exuberant abstractionist spirit, and it accords well with the artist's commitments to "lyrical formalism" and soft geometry." The background of Ginzel's self-portrait is filled with a similar lively pattern of multi-colored, but perpendicular bands of color. A concise biography of Roland Ginzel appears in Art in Chicago: 1945-1995 (1996). Ginzel is married to Ellen Lanyon, who is also in this showing.
"SELF-PORTRAITS 2000" does present a number of fine portraits in which artist interpretation resides primarily in the image, rather than in formalistic invention. Donna Tadelman's solid, realistic portrait in pencil calls for close consideration. Robert Lucy as well offers a fine realist pencil sketch, and Robert Schultz is represented by a fine figurative rendering in subdued graphite greys.
In what seems both a psychology of color, and a means of concentrating viewer attention to the persona of the image, Anne Abrons has executed a portrait in blue. There is an uncertain look, an air of apprehension about her. In the background left of her piece hangs an image of a basketball player. In a rather more expressionistic mode, James McGarrell stares out from his self-portrait, also in blue, the artist's eyes slightly averted, his center of balance set to the right within the image space.
In Lorraine Peltz's self-portrait, one finds an almost Taoist suggestion of self: an ensemble of component lines of variable weight -- a calligraphic aesthetic -- builds an outline of the artist's silhouette; but no face is presented within. This covert self centers within a checkerboard pattern of squares of varying blues, greens, and yellows. Peltz's piece here recalls some of the finer work of Raoul Dufy -- there is certainly a decorative grace to this piece. Rich color and dramatic light have characterized her art, and at times objects have taken on anthropomorphic qualities. She is featured in Spirited Visions (1991) and critic James Yood noted in her work "a kind of pictorial poetry," and observed that "while her pictures are easily described in words, no words quite exist that can circumscribe the aura her paintings evoke." Her self-portrait exemplifies that aesthetic. Peltz studied at the State University of New York/New Paltz, and the University of Chicago. She now teaches at Northwestern University.
Arthur Lerner offers a portrait more of soul than self. He builds a suggestion of personal presence -- form confined in a mist and a cloud of reddish brown. There are indistinct contours in this work: no hard lines, no features. Lerner has left himself on paper, rather than his semblance. Although his earliest work, given toward symbolism and mythology, was influenced by Soutine and Hyman Bloom, Lerner went on to produce figurative works with attention to Bacon and Giacometti. His art has thus drawn upon both representational and abstract tendencies. Arthur Lerner also studied at the School of the Art Institute, Chicago.
Dan Gustin chose to represent himself full figure, at easel, in the lower right foreground of a Cezanne-esque, quasi-Fauvistic Italian landscape. Here, the artist emphasizes locale and his continuing response and relationship to it. It is a familiar scene for Gustin, who visits the Italian countryside in summer, and it seems to betoken a certain humility of personal identity: an artist deeply aware of the greater world abroad.
... Even when divided into doubled parts, no notice can hope to give more than an overview, a brief sampling of "SELF-PORTRAITS 2000: A Twentieth Anniversary Celebration." But this showing of artist self-portraits, now at Printworks Gallery, Chicago, is well worth repeated visits right up until it closes February 17, 2000. It is an important exhibition -- and not just for the opportunity to view, together and in uniform format, excellent work by 66 noted artists. It offers as well almost every conceivable approach to the self-portrait genre: a wide variety of styles, media and conceptualization. In addition, since the artists represented have had enduring associations with Printworks Gallery, further examples of their work are available there. And a number of the exhibitors have executed additional self-portraits, which will go on view in rotation during this showing. "SELF-PORTRAITS 2000: A Twentieth Anniversary Celebration" is an important opportunity for the committed gallery visitor as well as new-comers to Chicago art. It very much merits close attention.
Finis Part I
--G. Jurek Polanski
Editorial Note: Books mentioned in www.artscope.net reviews are often in print and may be ordered through this site's Barnes & Noble link. Of particular interest are Spirited Visions: Portraits of Chicago Artists by Patty Carroll (University of Illinois Press: 1991) (which includes photographs of the artists), and Art in Chicago: 1945-1995 (Thames and Hudson/Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago: 1996). Ed Paschke is entered in Chicago Art Scene (Crow Woods Publishing:1998) as well as Ed Paschke by Neal Benezra, Carol Schreiber, with Dennis Adrian, John Yau (Hudson Hills Press: 1996); and Riva Lehrer is featured in Art Scene, Chicago 2000 (Crow Woods Publishing: 2000) which has been reviewed by www.artscope.net (October 2000). Philip Pearlstein is covered by Painting to Watercolor (University of Northern Iowa: 1983). Baudelaire was quoted in T.S. Eliot's "The Wasteland."