Brenda Zlamany: The Itinerant Portraitist at the Re Institute
July 10 to September 18, 2021
1395 Boston Corners Rd, Millerton, NY 12546
“Only connect,” E.M. Forster once famously wrote. How many times in the last year and a half have we heard the declaration, “We are all connected,” despite a period forever defined by the intolerable hardship of “social distancing,” when many families suffered enforced separation from their loved ones, and many people tragically died alone? The global pandemic has dramatically proven that our categorical “connection” is both a bane and a boon—while we can potentially all infect each other, we can—and must—also attempt to reach out to each other.
Brenda Zlamany’s extraordinary array of 500 portraits in The Itinerant Portraitist, on view through September 18 at the Re Institute in Millerton, New York, provides a powerful and poignant testament to our connected humanity. In an era when selfishness, and the “selfie” have ruled, her work, going back a decade, redefines the contemporary notion of “face time.” Indeed, one could consider each of the individual faces in her myriad, rainbow coalition of physiognomies, the ultimate un-selfie.
Zlamany’s pictorial project began in 2011, funded by a Fulbright grant. The earliest works in the show were done in over 30 aboriginal villages in Taiwan, which she visited with her young daughter, Oona. The artist travelled light: Zlamany, an accomplished oil painter whose commissioned work is on permanent display at Yale University, stripped her practice down to the bare and portable minimum; paper, pencil and watercolors.
Aided by a time-honored tool, an old-fashioned camera lucida –a technique she learned from David Hockney, a close friend whom she met when she worked as a printmaker in the 1980s- Zlamany sits face to face with her subject and sketches a basic outline. Then, over the course of a single hour, during which she sensitively but persistently prompts her sitter to divulge deeply personal stories, she finishes the form, rendering the portrait in quick, expressive watercolor strokes. Think of it as speed portrait painting (a much more intimate interaction than speed dating.) The subject, while the focal point, is also engaged in a kind of confessional. “I am trying to capture something that happens between us over the hour of listening to them,” Zlamany says.
The completed portraits brim with life in all its stages, from cradle to grave. But they also serve as a memento mori. They are quintessentially ephemeral, a delicate layer of pigment on paper that captures a fleeting moment of time. Zlamany’s chosen medium and technique perfectly convey the transience of human life.
The exhibit has been divided into groups of portraits of indigenous people living in far flung locations, from Alaska to Saudi Arabia, from the Hebrew Home for the Aged in Riverdale, New York, to the sunny vineyards of Sonoma, California. They include Cuban taxi drivers, Alaskan national park rangers , girls from an Abu Dhabi orphanage, and New York art world denizens. They start with infants, and move on to the very old, one of whom died the day she was painted.
The approach is egalitarian. “Art is a like an elevator,” the artist says, “And I wanted to stop on every floor. Everyone has a chance to get involved.” At the end of each session, Zlamany documents it with a photograph of the subject proudly holding their own portrait, which they, rather than the artist, has signed.
The exhibit begins with a bang: an enormous image of Noura, an Arab woman in a hijab, proudly festooned on the entrance to the vintage red barn that houses the gallery. (And sure to provoke local Trumpsters.) Inside the gallery, the walls are papered with rows and rows of hundreds of faces, cheek by jowl, creating a tessellated effect. The hanging isn’t random but organized so that the various indigenous groups are differentiated by the dominant colors in their portraits. Alaska, for instance, includes images mostly done in green; Saudi Arabia mostly done in black. The first impression of this vast display is overwhelming, but soon the eye focuses on the individual faces, in all their many differences.
As she travelled to more than a dozen destinations over the last decade, Zlamany clearly honed her craft. One of the first images, of a sleeping baby, is tentative and impressionistic, the artist’s brush barely grazing the page. By the time she painted the images of the elderly in the Hebrew Home, done in 2017, Zlamany has mastered her form, creating decisive works that powerfully portray her subjects, simultaneously signaling the political and social implications of their specific habitats (climate change, for instance, as seen in Alaska and Sonoma wine country; the quality of life in nursing homes.)
Covid-induced masking also provided Zlamany with fertile ground: in Zlamany’s work, both masked and unmasked, the eyes emphatically have it. “Eye contact is an exciting element and helps you gain trust. And from my Saudi paintings I knew how to get a likeness with just the eyes,” she says. “But this was a lot of fun, because instead of focusing on facial features, there was so much pattern and decoration and abstraction. It was a great break.”
Despite her initial terror at being in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, an epicenter of the virus, Zlamany did a series of 85 socially-distanced portraits of mask wearers on her building’s loading platform, a welcome release from isolation for both the artist and her subjects. And in her most recent series, done in 2020-21, she captured more mask-wearers in upstate New York, some of which are among her liveliest paintings. Take her portrait of Gary, his vibrant blue eyes seen through round black designer glasses, his “Exit Trump” mask in red and white and black color-coordinated with his shirt.
From traditional-costume wearers in Taiwan, (one woman in an ornate headdress) to weathered firefighters in Alaska to young concertgoers in Oxfordshire, Zlamany has documented a swath of the globe in all its diversity. And while the stark images of the nearly obscured Saudi Women in Hijab are haunting, the watercolors of the workers in Alaska, Cuba and Sonoma, humbling, and the portraits of the New York art world members engaging (Zlamany did one a day for an entire year; check out Deborah Kass, Katherine Bradford, Alex Katz, Lilly Wei, David Ebony, Peter Drake, Linda Yablonsky) perhaps the most moving series in the show is “100/100:” the end-of-life portraits done at the Hebrew Home in Riverdale, which has been given its own wall.
Unlike the other portraits – meticulous high-quality prints of the original watercolors considered too fragile to hang – these are the original works, previously framed by the Hebrew Home. Says the artist of this 100-portrait project, “It was probably one of the most emotionally challenging things I’ve ever done in my life. To go in there and deal with life and death at that level. Some people died before I painted them, some people died shortly afterwards. I painted a Holocaust survivor who had been in the camps with her twin sister. I listened to stories that were heartbreaking, but then there were some incredible lessons. All portraits are about mortality, but in many cases these were literally final moments. When I got home, I would be emotionally spent, often in a fetal position. For me it was life-changing.”
Despite their pain and disability, and even the “post-verbal” condition of these subjects, Zlamany has managed to capture not only their frailty but their remarkable level of dignity. The portrait of Mabel, crowned with a blue turban, and looking, it seems, into infinity, is regal. And although Ruth wears oxygen-tank tubes and cannot hold her elderly head erect, the half-smile on her face brings it to life. For Zlamany, this was revelatory. “I never painted wheelchairs before, in the beginning, I tried to flatter people. But then I started to paint what I saw. And people loved it. Instead of having me flatter them, they wanted to see how they looked to me. They wanted to discover who they were through my eyes. They wanted that honesty. Ruth is a painting that tells you that. That is someone who is being seen at the end of their life, with their breathing tubes, yet she is truly delighted by her portrait. I tried to find the person who was there.”
With The Itinerant Portraits project, Zlamany has created a multifaceted celebration of life. The show ends as it begins, with a bang: hanging from the ceiling, so that in order to exit the gallery, you either have to push past her or genuflect below her, is a larger-than-life image of gallerist Julie Torres, wearing a pink “Pussy Power” t-shirt.
“It’s just a subtle thing about the power of women,” Zlamany says. “I am a female artist painting portraits, and traditionally portraiture has been the domain of men. And so I just wanted to assert the power of women: Noura on the front of the barn—a Saudi woman who just got the right to drive. And the power of my own vision as a female artist: the female gaze on the world.” And then some.