Seeing a familiar genre in new ways
One of the pencil-on-paper drawings from “Empirical Studies — I-IV” (1978-81) by Bill Ramage.

Seeing a familiar genre in new ways

In 'Portraits: Expanded,' BMAC shows artists exploring new possibilities

BRATTLEBORO — “Every once in a while you have to take risks,” says Mara Williams, chief curator of the Brattleboro Museum & Art Center (BMAC).

Williams is speaking about “Portraits, Expanded,” the new show on display at BMAC through early January, 2015.

This multi-gallery exhibit features work by artists who extend the traditional concept of portraiture to include language, voice, time, history, community, and culture. Using an innovative range and variety of media and techniques, the artists in this exhibit show us what “portraiture” can do.

But Williams is quick to add that “risk” is an important component in her very job description at BMAC.

“There are several things that the museum looks for in the exhibitions curated at the museum over a five-show cycle,” she says. “We do three major shows a year, with usually three exhibitions each. By the end the fifth of these shows, with around 18 exhibitions, certain things are required. They do not have to be part of every show, but ultimately each of them must be addressed.

“These include the presentation of museum-quality work by national as well as local artists. There must be works of art that are well-suited for employing the pedagogy of Visual Think Strategy (VTS) that our Education Curator Susan Calabria uses in conjunction with school programs in the area.

“And the museum is looking for some work in the cycle that can be considered risky,” she adds.

However, risk can come in many guises. A show of purely abstract work, such as the BMAC exhibit in fall 2013, “Dynamic Invention: American Abstract Artists at 75,” for some people constitutes risk taking.

Or presenting art from a significantly different culture from our own, as BMAC did in the fall of 2012 with the show, “Hot Box: A Taste of Contemporary Chinese Art,” seems risky to others.

With “Portraits, Expanded,” the risk is conceptual.

Williams says that although portraiture is one of the most recognizable of all genres of art, each of the artists in this new show approaches portraiture in an unusual way.

“Therefore: the title of our exhibition: 'Portraits, Expanded,'” she says. “It is clearly about portraiture, but at the same time, we hope to expand viewers idea of what that can be.”

“This exhibit is a follow-up to a portrait exhibit that Mara curated for the museum in 2008,” says BMAC Executive Director Danny Lichtenfeld. “While curating that earlier show, she found more artists than she could use, and so we have been eager to find the right time to do a second portrait show.”

With 16 to 18 artists represented - several works are joint efforts - the art fills the museum.

“It accompanies a second show, “World Leaders and Global Citizens: Photographs by Patrick Leahy, U.S. Senator,” which is also a show of portraiture, but we consider it a separate exhibit,” Lichtenfeld adds.

The work on display in “Portraits, Expanded” ranges from the late 1970s until a few weeks before the exhibit opened.

“About half of the artists come from Vermont, which is part of our mission to showcase museum-quality work from artist in our area,” Lichtenfeld explains.

Lichtenfeld gives a sample of the scope of the work in the show by artists who are expanding traditional ideas of portraiture.

There can be found in the exhibit painting, drawing, photography, sculpture and more, he says.

“This includes gigantic portraits done with pencil on paper, portraits consisting solely of words painted on paper describing its subject, photographic images blown up from the computer, puppets from Sandglass Theater that explore aging, a video collage that presents a schematic rendering of the subject's abstracted face in motion, and oil portraits of teenagers supplemented with audio interviews accessible by QR on smartphones,” he adds.

In the program to the exhibit, Williams explains in detail how each of these artists pushes the boundaries of portraiture.

• Janice Krasnow's portraits are words on paper.

“'Long brown hair and a boney freckled body' are eight words rendered by hand in elegant Caslon type and filling a canvas as it distills the sitter's physiognomy to its dominant traits. Krasnow has a reductive approach to portraiture that seems perfect in a world of tweets and texts,” as Williams writes.

“But unlike a tweet, Krasnow's portraits are both tactile and thought-provoking. The mind and the hand of the artist are clearly evident - observing, sorting, editing, choosing, painting - crystallizing for herself and the viewer the physical essence of the sitter.”

• Christopher Irion has spent 40 years photographing individuals in communities across the country and fashioning the photos into large, multi-panel group portraits (examples of his work can be seen on the huge photo portraits on the outside of the museum).

Williams writes that he also belongs to the online community tumblr, “where individuals around the globe make and post portraits on the Web. Irion has gathered a selection of what to him are the most interesting portraits from mostly unknown artists and curated a small show-within-a-show, celebrating a new venue for photography in the age of the selfie.”

• Michel Moyse, co-founder and director of the Center for Digital Arts in Brattleboro, uses video to create what he calls “three-channel motion painting.”

Williams writes, “World-renowned flutist Carol Wincenc appears in snippets of an interview with Moyse. An audio track of her flute playing forms a soundscape. Abstract colors and marks - sometimes syncopated, other times melodic, still others contrapuntal - dominate the viewing area. These are Moyse's brushstrokes, unfolding, overlapping, obscuring, and revealing his vision of Wincenc and her music.”

• Kate Gridley, in her series “Passing Through: Portraits of Emerging Adults,” paints fully realized, three-quarter-length portraits which, according to Williams, “are rendered with remarkable fidelity to the sitter and absolute mastery of paint.”

Although initially these works seem the most traditional in the show, what is unusual about these portraits is that they are of teenagers, an age seldom honored or represented in paint.

In addition, Gridley, with the assistance of the Vermont Folklife Center, has interviewed her subjects. The audio accompanies each portrait.

• Perhaps the most popular items in the show are Bill Ramage's four floor-to-ceiling pencil-on-paper drawings. Williams writes that these highly realistic self-portraits appear to have been executed over decades. Comparing these portraits, Ramage goes from looking like a teenager to an old man. The images actually were completed within four years.

Each of the four portraits explores the topography of Ramage's face, Williams writes. Rather like Rembrandt did before him, Ramage uses his face merely as a starting point for a detailed exploration of perception, asking himself, “How much more can I see? How much more can I record?”

“Each of those portraits took me a year to complete,” Ramage says. “I embarked on the project to figure out how much I could see. If you notice, each of the drawings gets increasingly more detailed. That's because I tried new ways to find more in my face. In the end, I figured that I saw as much as I would ever see, so I stopped.”

Strikingly, especially in such detailed work, the final portrait is only half completed. Although the picture was not finished, Ramage was, and he moved on to other artistic projects.

“I have overheard people in the museum say that these portraits are like the work of Chuck Close,” Williams says. “But Close blew up photographs and traced his large images. Here Ramage has a different concept and aesthetic. He does it all with his eye, drawing straight onto a blank page with pencil.”

Although “Portraits, Expanded” is on display until March 7, 2015, many of the works in this exhibit are leaving on Jan. 4 to make room for new shows in BMAC's main galleries.

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