Quantcast

reviews, features & interviews

Philly portraits at Gallery 339 and PAFA

By

October 27, 2009   ·   5 Comments

Zoe Strauss, Bunny, 2001, Archival Pigment Print, 20 x 30 inches

Portraits are everywhere, right now, major portraits. I had a nice conversation with myself after seeing two terrific shows of Philadelphia portraits in the same week–the show Personal Views: Contemporary Photographic Portraiture in Philadelphia, at Gallery 339;  and the paintings in Barkley L. Hendricks’ Birth of the Blues at Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts.

Barkley L. Hendricks, Misc. Tyrone (Tyrone Smith), 1976. Oil and magna on linen canvas, 72 x 50 ¼ inches. Courtesy of the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, NY.Barkley L. Hendricks, Tequila, 1978. Oil and acrylic on linen canvas, 60 ¾ x 50 ¼ inches. Collection of the Butler Institute for American Art, Youngstown, OH.

Barkley L. Hendricks, Misc. Tyrone (Tyrone Smith), 1976. Oil and magna on linen canvas, 72 x 50 ¼ inches. Courtesy of the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, NY.Barkley L. Hendricks, Tequila, 1978. Oil and acrylic on linen canvas, 60 ¾ x 50 ¼ inches. Collection of the Butler Institute for American Art, Youngstown, OH.

I was struck by, how in a funny reversal of expectation, Hendricks’ paintings, with their blank backgrounds and fashion focus, come out of a recent photographic tradition, while so many of the photographs in Personal Views come more directly out of the painting tradition, in which sitters pose with symbols of their worth.

Barkley L. Hendricks, Sir Charles, Alias Willie Harris, 1972. Oil and acrylic on linen canvas, 84 1/8 x 72 inches. Collection National Gallery of Art; William C. Whitney Foundation--a weed dealer as the three graces

Barkley L. Hendricks, Sir Charles, Alias Willie Harris, 1972. Oil and acrylic on linen canvas, 84 1/8 x 72 inches. Collection National Gallery of Art; William C. Whitney Foundation--a weed dealer as the three graces

Hendricks’ portraits also reference religious icons, an association that elevates his subjects to sainthood. Some of the paintings glow with an ethereal light; and some of them have iconic gilt backgrounds. Surrounded by nothing but ether, with no details of the urban environment from where they come, these subjects are well-positioned to communicate their self-worth with sartorial splendor. They come without pedigree and create their own individuality. It’s costume as self-invention. And Hendricks loves and admires them for being exactly who they are.

35E_IconForMyManR2

Barkley L. Hendricks, Icon for My Man Superman (Superman never saved any black people – Bobby Seale), 1969, Oil, acrylic, and aluminum leaf on linen canvas, 59 ½ x 48 inches. Courtesy of the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, NY.

This is not art as fashion design; this is art with a political subtext. The scale is confrontational, grand and powerful at the same time that the figures are non-threatening. The iconoclasm in Icon for My Man Superman, a portrait of Bobby Seale, takes both Superman and Seale off pedestals, humanizing the cartoon, humorizing the man. Barkley Hendricks loves his subjects and loves people. It comes through loud and clear. He is legitimizing, embodying, making visible. It’s a gentle approach to a social revolution.

Sarah Stolfa, Benton, MS, 2007, Archival Pigment Print, 24 x 30 inches, Edition of 10

Sarah Stolfa, Benton, MS, 2007, Archival Pigment Print, 24 x 30 inches, Edition of 10

Sarah Stolfa’s, Zoe Strauss’ and Justyna Badach’s portraits at Gallery 339 may provide environment in the tradition of Rembrandtian burghers, but their subjects are not exactly burghers. not the usual powerful or moneyed class who can afford to commission Annie Leibovitz.

Justyna Badach, Rourke, 2009, Archival Pigment Print, 23" x 30"; Edition of 3; 31" x 40"; Edition of 3

Justyna Badach, Rourke, 2009, Archival Pigment Print, 23" x 30"; Edition of 3; 31" x 40"; Edition of 3

Badach’s photos of bachelors are sad, the men isolated in forlorn environments of their own choosing and creation. These photos have no lushness to them, but the question of who we are looking at and why is plenty of a draw, with or without the statements Badach displays with the photos.

Sarah Stolfa, Memphis, TN, 2007, Archival Pigment Print, 24 x 30 inches, Edition of 10

Sarah Stolfa, Memphis, TN, 2007, Archival Pigment Print, 24 x 30 inches, Edition of 10

In Stolfa’s current series on view, which references Robert Frank and Alec Soth, there’s a question of intention. She lets the subjects project who they are. But she cannot cross the social divide in the same way that she did in her portraits across the bar at McGlinchey’s.  Stolfa means to disconcert her viewer. And I suspect she herself is disconcerted by the kitchen worker with the gun at her waist. In this sense, Stolfa’s portraits are less about the individuals, and more about a cultural divide between northern and southern values.

Zoe Strauss, Bunny, 2001, Archival Pigment Print, 20 x 30 inches

Zoe Strauss, Bunny, 2001, Archival Pigment Print, 20 x 30 inches

Not so in Strauss’s work, where the people’s faces become a roadmap away from Britney and Joan Rivers, a different vision from the media circus of what it means to be human. Strauss is the Walt Whitman of Philadelphia photographers, singing her love for an entire side of the culture otherwise ignored. But unlike the romanticizer Hendricks, Strauss keeps the hard-scrabble environment and the hard-nosed realism, be it no makeup or too much makeup.

Andrea Modica, Sicily 7, 1990, Platinum/Palladium Contact Print, 8 x 10 inches, Edition of 20

Andrea Modica, Sicily 7, 1990, Platinum/Palladium Contact Print, 8 x 10 inches, Edition of 20

Also in the show at 339 are Andrea Modica’s sociological photographs of Italians who have been largely untouched by glamor shots and the notion of performing for the camera; Rita Bernstein’s painterly photographs that are less about portraiture than mood and light and material; Jessica Todd Harper’s portraits of middle-class comfort, which seem closest to the burgher portraits of the Dutch golden age of painting; and Nadine Rovner’s setups, which are less about the individual people and more about cinematic mise-en-scenes.

a portrait by Josh Rickards

a portrait by Josh Rickards

PS: I saw Josh Rickards at BYOTY at Little Berlin while I was thinking about the photos and Hendricks, so then I gave some thought to what Rickards is doing. He, like Hendricks, takes the subject out of a real environment. Sometimes the background is a blank color, but sometimes he creates a flat, abstracted environment that represents a milieu, a time and a place. And his stylized faces, which draw from craft veneer drawing, emphasizes the deadpan ordinariness of his subject. These are not so much personal portraits; they are pictures of a lifestyle and subculture.

Personal Views: Contemporary Photographic Portraiture in Philadelphia is up through November 14, 2009 and Barkley L. Hendricks: Birth of the Cool is up to January 3, 2010.

Tags: , , , , , , , ,

5 Responses to “Philly portraits at Gallery 339 and PAFA”

  1. [...] Suddenly they’re the rage. Every art critic/blogger seems to be showcasing someone’s new portrait of a hip-hop celebrity, or a museum’s [...]

  2. cavin jones says:

    I look forward to seeing the Barkeley Hendricks show at Pafa! Funny, I’ve been doing a series of historical/socio-political portraits for the last 3 years at the Walter Palmer Leadership and Learning Partners Charter School(at 6th and Poplar), that virtually no one knows about. I’ve done over 210 so far. I guess there’s something in the air…

  3. libby says:

    Hi, Cavin, Well it does feel a little like the ’60s these days. But portraits are political most of the time in that they are cultural. I am thinking about the most traditional of them. They are props for the status quo, and therefore political support for the folks in power!
    Anyway, sounds like a super project!!! And besides, I do think of your work as often political! I’d love to see it when you’re ready to show.

  4. badach justyna says:

    Libby,

    Thank you for taking the time to post the reviews. It is always great to hear what you think about the work , my own and especially now that I am out of town the work of other artists. The blog is a great way to keep in touch with the community when I can’t physically be there to see things for myself.

  5. libby says:

    Hi, Justyna, How nice to hear from you. It was great to see your photos from this body of work for the second time, in a different context. (I think maybe the last time was a show at the Art Alliance, but I’m not sure off the top of my head). I always feel when I see something a second time and still like it, and remember the last time fondly, that something interesting is going on in the work!

Leave a Reply