Thursday, May 5th, 2011

The Aldrich at a Crossroads

Portraiture at the Aldrich: Six Exhibitions at the Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum
Shimon Attie” MetroPAL IS; Jenny Dubnau: Head On; James Esber: Your Name Here; Hope Gangloff: Love Letters; Thilo Hoffmann: High School Portraits; KAWS: Companion (Passing Through); and Timothy White: Portraits

January 30 to June 5, 2011 (Attie closes May 30)
258 Main Street
Ridgefield, Connecticut 06877 (203)-438-4519

Jenny Dubnau, S.A., Dark Ground, 2010.  Oil on canvas, 32 x 44 inches.  Courtesy of the Artist
Jenny Dubnau, S.A., Dark Ground, 2010. Oil on canvas, 32 x 44 inches. Courtesy of the Artist

Putting into play a new curatorial strategy that has been in the works for over a year, the Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum in Ridgefield, Connecticut recently opened six thematically linked solo exhibitions. “Portraiture at The Aldrich” marshals new and recent work by Jenny Dubnau, James Esber, Hope Gangloff, Thilo Hoffmann, Timothy White (all on view through June 5) and Shimon Attie (through May 30). While a bold concept, in practice the new scheme is off to a shaky start. Under one roof but not clearly orchestrated, the selection of artists ironically feels even more arbitrary than previously at the Aldrich, when visitors had to assess for themselves whether and how exhibitions interrelated. Of uneven interest, the current shows collectively constitute a portrait of an institution in transition.

The high point is “Head On,” seven oversized portrait busts in oil on canvas by Queens-based painter Jenny Dubnau. The artist works squarely in the realist tradition, eliciting a sense of the subject’s unvarnished presence through deft rendering of the glow of skin, the sheen of hair, the glint of an eye. Her compositions are a bit off-kilter, as in M.K., Pale Ground (all works 2010), in which the sitter’s elegant, oval face is mostly below the painting’s midline. The upper half of the canvas contains little but her forehead and that expansive, neutral ground—a silvery gray—which mirrors her inscrutable, unflappable expression.

Other paintings capture their sitter with an unflattering, impossible-to-hold expression, making it clear that photography is essential to Dubnau. With arched eyebrows and pursed lips, the subject of M.B. in Midsentence appears to wince as he makes some unknown rhetorical point; T.H., Glancing Sideways looks downright shifty-eyed, stealing a peek at the camera from his profile position. Self-portrait with Earrings is a monument to social anxiety. Flushed, her eyes bugging a bit, the artist lists to her left while licking her lips as if about to speak, spit, or whistle up some moxie.

The prolonged contact the portrait painter traditionally has with the sitter is in Dubnau’s practice replaced by a photo shoot; her considerable descriptive skills are focused not on skin and bones but on a layer of photographic emulsion. Dubnau asks if those awkward moments when our guard is down are more real, more true, than our poised, composed selves allow. The only one of her subjects who seems unaware of the camera is a bemused-looking fellow with a goatee and a prominent left ear, depicted in J.E. Looking to the Side.

That would be James Esber, whose exhibition, “Your Name Here,” is just down the corridor from Dubnau’s. Implicit in “Head On,” the subtheme of collaboration is overt in Esber’s ongoing “this is not a portrait“ series, of which over 100 examples are on view. Using a photocopy of the Brooklyn artist’s 2005 brush-and-ink drawing of Osama Bin Laden as a template, participants in the series have been briefed to “remake” the drawing according to instructions that stress line quality: “They should have whatever character is natural to your way of making marks.”

Hope Gangloff, Sarah VanDerBeek in Her Bath Closet, 2010. Acrylic on canvas, 54¼ x 82¼ inches. Collection of Cynthia and Stuart Smith
Hope Gangloff, Sarah VanDerBeek in Her Bath Closet, 2010. Acrylic on canvas, 54¼ x 82¼ inches. Collection of Cynthia and Stuart Smith

It is thus inevitable that some aspects of the original would be amplified and others supressed, but the range of variations on Esber’s distorted, spectral caricature goes well beyond matters of touch. In one (artist David Sandlin’s—though there’s no indication of the collaborators other than their signatures), a web of wrinkles on Bin Laden’s left cheek morphs into a pair of jet airliners. To hers, the painter Ann Pibal imparts volume and spatial clarity that is lacking in the others, including even Esber’s; painter Tom Burckhardt’s attention to shape over line resembles a photographic negative. Some look a mess; assuming an autographical presence exists in the trace of anyone’s “hand,” and allowing that each drawing is “by” both Esber and the collaborator, are those several in which the image is almost impossible to discern significantly less Esber’s? Here, collaboration is not a 50/50 proposition, but a sliding scale.

Interspersed with six barely-legible portraits of the fleetingly famous (e.g., pilot Sully Sullenberger; disowned adoptee Artyom Savelyev) fabricated directly on the gallery walls in colored plasticine, the drawing installation extends in a broken grid toward the gallery’s double-height ceiling. Regrettably, many are hung far too high for proper viewing. Intended, I suppose, to suggest the internet’s near-instantaneous proliferation of sensationalistic images (“viral” in fashionable parlance) and the voracious 24-hour news cycle, this treatment of the work privileges conceptual over material values in a self-defeating exhibition expedient. Bad idea.

Speaking of bad ideas, photographer Thilo Hoffmann takes his cues from the teenagers whose candids he shoots, using a large-format camera. His “High School Portraits” includes fourteen 45-by-32-inch color prints (all dated 2010) in which the subjects dictate the location, pose, props—all the creative input. Hoffmann enables the work by supplying the technical means, and squeezing the shutter.

The kids are at that phase when the imperatives of identity and self-image take hold on the psyche like the jaws of a bear trap, and daily behavior takes on a performative dimension. Some display the attributes of their professional ambitions by locating themselves at a piano or on Broadway; in an aggressively decorated bedroom or dockside by a placid lake, others contextualize themselves with indicators of leisure. Their self-absorption seems authentic; the problem is that there is little about the the photographs that is particularly distinctive. A video attests to the collaborative nature of the shoots, but it does not improve their results.

Katy Grannan has used a similar device to searing effect, but most of these “High Scool Portraits” are bland. One striking image transcends Hoffmann’s cumbersome conceptual apparatus: One More Year, Sophia Stoop/Katonah, NY in which an antsy young woman with kooky hair and a black portfolio, having positioned herself on a suburban train platform, scouts the tracks for the train that will whisk her to The City. Shot from a low angle, she is framed against a blue morning sky as clear and intense as her determined expression. Like Mary Richards in the old “Mary Tyler Moore Show,” you know she’s gonna make it after all. In assuming a role—that is, acting—Ms. Stoop lets Hoffmann (and the viewer) closer than do her contemporaries to the real self.

As with Hoffmann’s high schoolers, the inner lives of Hope Gangloff’s young professionals are revealed through their activities and accoutrements rather than a seismic reading of the subtleties of physiognomy. The nineteen paintings and drawings in “Love Letters” demonstrate this artist’s penchant for bold composition, local color, consistency of touch and anecdotal narrative detail—the hallmarks of illustration.

As a painter, Gangloff is in dialogue with Matisse and Schiele in her interest in combining retina-pleasing pattern and keyed-up color with the supple contours of the  human form. In an attitude of regal repose, the sleek dressmaker in E. Starbuck (60 by 108 inches, all works 2010) pauses among bolts of parti-colored fabrics; to a wall parallel to the picture plane her sketches are affixed, with bits of red-orange tape. A gooseneck lamp mimicks her boney physique, a bit too obviously. Sara VanDerBeek in Her Bath Closet is an odd painting. A stylish brunette gently contorts herself while focused on the task of painting her toenails; her foot is bigger than her head, the unfurling toilet paper sticks to her leg, and the mirror’s reflection is an inscrutable, dashed-off abstraction. But the contrast between the buzzy pattern of her kimono and the muted greenish grid of bathroom tiles is so overstated as to steal the scene.

In no hurry to dress, the sitter seems both languid and poised. In fact all Gangloff’s subjects preen a bit. The appearance of smugness is amusing in small doses but, like the pervasive doe-eyed ennui in Elizabeth Peyton’s oeuvre, this quirk has become a tic and, in “Love Letters” at least, a liability.

Thilo Hoffman, MANCHILD, 2010. Archival inkjet prints mounted on Dibond, 45 x 32 inches. Courtesy of the artist
Thilo Hoffman, MANCHILD, 2010. Archival inkjet prints mounted on Dibond, 45 x 32 inches. Courtesy of the artist

Once you read the brochure, it’s hard not to admire the intentions behind “MetroPAL.IS,” Shimon Attie’s 12-minute video installation in which a fry cook, a transit worker, a skate punk, a cross-dresser and other stereotypical urbanites are seen full-length on eight screens arranged in an inward-facing circle, declaiming fragments of official-sounding language like amateur thespians and gesturing obscurely. That text, it turns out, is a blend of the Palestinian and Israeli declarations of sovereignty—separated in time by forty years—and the players are immigrants to New York City from those communities abroad.

The stilted performances are meant to introduce elements of Classical Greek theater and sculpture, in a nod to the origins of Western democracy. But the speakers appear brainwashed, as if they memorized nationalistic boilerplate like poetry. Creatively ambitious, technically masterful, the work is admirably open-ended. Does Attie assert that a real “conversation” about the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians, even those who have gained distance from it, is forever precluded by exigencies of statehood? Who knows. The experience of standing among those policy-intoning wraiths is overwhelmingly claustrophobic—which might also be the point.

The consciousness reflected in Attie’s work is global, in marked contrast to Timothy White’s “Portraits.” About evenly divided between black-and-white and color, these thirty-seven immaculate giclée prints are supremely accomplished examples of the celebrity photographer’s craft, but functionally indistinguishable from commercial advertising and helpless to expand anyone’s understanding of the world. Each subject’s practiced control of his or her persona sucks the air out of most of them. An angular, angsty Nicolas Cage mugs mock-threateningly for the camera (Nicolas Cage, San Francisco, CA, 1998); Bruce Springsteen slumps in the dirt, romancing his Fender (Bruce Springsteen, Malibu, CA, 1991); James Gandolfini, very much in character as Tony Soprano, stares icily from the far end of a smoldering cigar as if considering whether the viewer is worth the trouble of whacking (James Gandolfini, New York City, 2006)

A shot of a still-girlish Shirley MacLaine would melt a heart of glass (Shirley MacLaine, Los Angeles, CA, 1991). A trouper, she smiles wanly in her dressing room mirror, slightly crinkly but still devastatingly pretty. Her tightly framed face is all that is in focus. And even while tooling around Central Park on a comically undersized motorbike, Paul Newman reflexively offers the camera a three-quarter view of his singular jawline (Paul Newman, New York City, 1988). No doubt White’s work appeals to a broad audience, and one understands the desire of any museum to draw visitors. But a worthwhile exhibition somehow challenges the viewer’s sensibilities or preconceptions, and it is difficult to imagine a less challenging exhibition than this.

Four years ago I had the honor of curating an exhibition at the Aldrich, so I write with some insight into the pressures and challenges that it and institutions like it routinely encounter. A group show, mine would be inconsistent with the Aldrich’s new programming paradigm, but the trouble I find with the exhibitions now on view is rooted more deeply—in the museum’s effort to ensure that the work it presents is accessible to a broad audience. Plenty of recent shows there—by the likes of Elana Herzog, Tom Burckhardt and Ted Victoria—have demonstrated that accessibility is not inconsistent with a deeply personal vision, compellingly expressed. While I’ve no doubt that the Aldrich will regain its footing, missteps currently delay the way forward.

Hope Gangloff, The Trouble with Paradise, 2009. Acrylic on canvas, 64 x 81 inches. Collection of Cynthia and Stuart Smith
click to enlarge