Narcissus in the studio at PAFA – embracing life, death and the figure

Bay area figure painter Joan Brown hugs a fish. Hans Weingaertner, a German-born transplant to the US, shows his naked reflection in the mirror on which he crouches–but keeps his fish out of sight. Narcissus in the Studio, an exhibit of portraits and self-portraits at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, is full of delights and surprises, fearlessly hung to show the many ways that portraits are about more than reproducing a face or even suggesting an identity, but that they can be about mortality; life with its woes and joys; and the mind.

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Sylvia Fein Self-Portrait, 1949, Pencil on paper, Gift of Sylvia Fein and William Scheuber, Courtesy of PAFA

The exhibit of more than 100 works — drawings, paintings, sculpture, prints and artifacts (Thomas Eakins’ pallette) — focuses on 19th, 20th century and contemporary portraiture.  It mixes the familiar and the unfamiliar with works borrowed and works (some unfamiliar) from PAFA’s own collection. The show is hung thematically; it juxtaposes the contemporary with the past, the psychological with the fantastic with the literal. Robert Arneson’s double-self-portrait in clay of one head consuming the other (point of contact has blood-red glaze –not for the weak of stomach) is a show stopper.  The piece chronicles the artist’s battle with cancer.

Narcissus pairs ultra-hip Rebecca Westcott’s portrait of her husband, Jim, wearing a pink t-shirt, with conventional 19th century portraits by men, of men, all wearing dark suits. It pairs James Sherman Brantley seen through his own eyes with James Sherman Brantley seen through Barkley Hendrick’s eyes. Same but different.  (Hear Brantley and other artists in the show talk about self-portraiture in an artists’ Q&A session this Sunday in the Hamilton Auditorium, Furness Building.  Free with museum admission)

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Gregory Gillespie William Beckman, 1993 Oil and alkyd on panel Private Collection

Other  highlights include Gregory Gillespie’s portrait of artist William Beckman. This piece is grouped with several other paintings by and of the pair of artists–all food for thought.

Gladys Nilsson Big Birthday Gladys, 2010, Watercolor and gouache on paper, Courtesy of the artist © Gladys Nilsson

The ladies, young and old, are a strong presence in this show. Sylvia Fein’s pencil drawing of her self, from 1949, looks fresh and contemporary. Anne Kraus’s vessel glazed with narratives and patterns is a delightful surprise inclusion. Gladys Nilsson paints herself a 70th birthday party, and Florine Stettheimer paints herself into a positively Fauve moment sur l’herbe in Picnic at Bedford Hills. Margaret Foster Richardson captures herself in motion back in 1912 in a perfectly luminous self-portrait, an Gina Litherland portrays herself in a fashionable but witchy costume with her familiars.

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Mia Rosenthal Postpartum Portrait, 2010 Ink and graphite on paper Courtesy of the artist and Gallery Joe, Philadelphia © Mia Rosenthal

Mia Rosenthal’s Postpartum Portrait, a drawing that catalogs the clothing in her closet five months after giving birth to her son, Kirby, echoes the underlying theme of self as flesh and bone, something that is vulnerable, changeable and on the road to inevitable medical meltdown. Sarah McEneaney’s “Recent History,” too, recollects the artist’s vulnerability in the aftermath of breast cancer. But this focus on mortality is tempered. These are not works that wallow in self-pity or despair. Rather, they simply remind us — with something like shrug-shouldered good nature — of what we all know already.

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Sarah McEneaney Recent History, 2006 Egg tempera on wood Courtesy Tibor de Nagy Gallery, NY ©  Sarah McEneaney

PAFA Curator of Modern Art, Robert Cozzolino, who organized the show, created a small room in the gallery that is a student art studio. During the weekdays, PAFA students take turn working on portraits and self-portraits in the space. Cozzolino says there’s a waiting list–every student wants to draw or paint in this mini-performance space. Nobody was there working when we visited but the studio, with its paint-spattered drop cloth on the floor and drawings taped to the walls, is a great outcropping and completely unexpected. The studio sits next to Joe Fig’s tiny sculptural model of his studio, exact down to the minutest detail. The magical mini-studio and the life-size studio together are a great ending to the show offering the thought that studios and portraits and the magic of what happens when artists work will be with us as long as there are artists.

Studio for PAFA students in the gallery

There’s a comprehensive catalog for the show with essays by Cozzolino and Jonathan Frederick Walz and contributions about working in the studio by artists Joe Fig and Sarah McEneaney.

[Ed note: This post has been corrected.  The portrait by Gregory Gillespie is of William Beckman in Gillespie’s studio.  The post erroneously said the portrait  shows Beckman’s head in Gillespie’s studio atop Gillespie’s body. We regret the error.]