Face to Face,

Ger­ald Peters Gallery, 1011 Paseo de Per­alta, 954-5700; through April

Pasatiempo - - Art -

“There are only two styles of por­trait paint­ing: the se­ri­ous and the smirk,” wrote Charles Dick­ens in Ni­cholas Nickleby. In Face To Face — cur­rently on view at Ger­ald Peters Gallery — there are a lot of both and then some. In 52 art­works by 29 artists, Face to Face has a bit of ev­ery­thing in terms of me­dia, tech­niques, and per­sonae. Paint­ings, draw­ings, prints, pho­tog­ra­phy, mixed me­dia, and sculp­ture oc­cupy the foyer, the main ex­hibit space, and a small an­te­room. From those who ap­pre­ci­ate re­al­ism to those par­tial to con­cep­tual fare, view­ers will find much to con­sider in 32 im­ages of women, 17 male fig­ures, and three works in which gen­der is up for grabs.

Some big names in the art world are rep­re­sented in this the­matic ex­hibit, in­clud­ing Mag­dalena Abakanow­icz, Chuck Close, Nan Goldin, Robert Graham, Jenny Holzer with Michael Glier, David Hock­ney, and Andy Warhol; but fame doesn’t nec­es­sar­ily make for the best work. The most in­trigu­ing, if not the most un­set­tling and sor­row­ful im­age in the show, is Josephine, a color pho­to­graph by Alexandra Strada. In a mat­ter-of­fact snapshot mode with a raised per­spec­tive, Strada’s im­age fea­tures an el­derly woman with a far­away gaze sitting on a sofa in a seem­ingly bar­ren room with putty-col­ored walls. The back of the sofa runs the width of the com­po­si­tion like a low hori­zon line, and the woman’s head — the por­trait is cropped at the shoul­ders — serves as a con­duit from sofa to wall, guid­ing our at­ten­tion to a framed pic­ture of a full-rigged sail­ing ves­sel at sea. The dark­ish seascape — po­si­tioned un­usu­ally high on the ex­panse of blank wall — seems to be sus­pended in a void and may be seen like a car­toon bub­ble above the woman’s head, con­vey­ing a thought or a state of mind. The vis­ual sym­bol of a lost soul or a per­son alone is sober­ing. Has this woman been in­sti­tu­tion­al­ized by her fam­ily? Is she a widow? Does she suf­fer from Alzheimer’s? Aging is not a pretty pic­ture, but Strada’s im­age is a pow­er­ful state­ment on the hu­man con­di­tion.

An­other im­age of blank stares — with looks that go right through you — is Happy Hour, a paint­ing by Michael Viera. Ex­e­cuted in a style rem­i­nis­cent of 16th-cen­tury Dutch por­trai­ture — sub­dued in pal­ette and sparse in sub­ject mat­ter — Viera presents two women dressed in blue sack dresses sitting next to each other on what ap­pears to be a church pew. The room is en­tirely dark, ex­cept for the il­lu­mi­nated faces of the two women, who may be re­lated by blood or sa­cred vows. The ti­tle — a mis­nomer if ever there was one — is a wink of the artist’s dry hu­mor. Viera’s women may, in­deed, be sitting in a tav­ern wait­ing for their pints of ale, but the am­bi­ence of the place is given more to rev­er­ent con­vo­ca­tion than ri­otous chug-a-lug.

The one paint­ing to which I re­turned again and again was Dog Boy by John Mel­len­camp — yes, that John Mel­len­camp, the singer/song­writer. A lone, elon­gated fig­ure of a young black man dressed in a mul­ti­col­ored sweat­shirt and slacks stands be­fore a white wall and stares out, seem­ingly with some­thing to say. Al­though the kid is look­ing di­rectly at you, he’s non­threat­en­ing and ap­pears to be un­sure of him­self or sim­ply shy. His un­gainly pro­por­tions broad­cast the awk­ward­ness — and en­dear­ing

John Mel­len­camp: Dog Boy, 2007, oil on can­vas, 48 x 48 inches; right, Nan Goldin:

Ivy in the Bos­ton Gar­den, Bos­ton, 1973, gelatin sil­ver print

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