Through a multi-dimensional compilation of works, Manifest Gallery presents a topically divided but conceptually supportive examination of the human form in three exhibitions. Indulging in long pursued studies of humanity, the artists of Face First, Extremities, and Losing Your Head, give way to surprising and didactic work. The technical achievements of some of the artists will move you to tears, while others will just make you think – both important in their own right.
Face First – Exploring the Human Face
If there is one thing I have learned from art criticism it is this: while the internet may be a useless tool for finding helpful information, it never fails to tell me a little more about the culture in which I am living. In my forage for topical resources, I discovered (just a few searches in) an interface that generates neo-classical portraits of 21st century celebrities. It’s a sad tale, or a telling one at that. So when we consider the topic of “portraiture” we have to know what we are talking about. Fundamentally, not much separates a mug shot from a Manet: frontal, close-up, and slightly apathetic. What differentiates portraiture from, say, other representations of the physical being, is its capacity to convey a person more comprehensively. A portrait is said to carry a far greater weight—to convey the very essence of an individual. Portraiture, then, is all encompassing, or can be at least.
We get a taste of this essence in Mina, an oil painting by artist Sohail Shehada. A stunning configuration of a female, Mina holds a powerful presence in the gallery. Historically, power has always been an inherent quality of portraiture as the elite, the dignitaries, the noble, and the righteous all found their place in the world fixed stagnantly between the confinement of a frame. To have a portrait made was a rite of passage, if you will. It was to mark your place in the world, to convey how you wished to be perceived and even more, how you understood yourself to be. Portraits then were burdensome for the viewer because the face, the very ingress to human connectivity, was made to be impositional. What is so successful about this particular portrait is the artist’s ability to take the historically oppressive qualities of portraiture and transform them into something entirely different (and perhaps Edgar Degas did the same in his 1867 Portrait of a Young Woman.) Through the portrayal of Mina, the viewer is presented with realistic, human-like attributes (distant gaze, tired eyes) that make the person of Mina seem very believable. Through formal choices made by the artist (washed background, red frame) the viewer is simultaneously faced with the implications of a created thing. Richard Brilliant says it well in his reflection on portraiture: “the oscillation between art object and human subject, represented so personally, is what gives portraits their extraordinary grasp on our imagination” (page 7, Portraiture). Mina feels knowable, or intriguing at that. In this way, and in stark contrast to elitist portraiture, the viewer is no longer contemplating self, but instead compelled to celebrate a sense of other.
A lasting and prime appeal of portraiture is its promise to preserve. Nothing says it more clearly than a modern portrait bust. These vessels utilize elements from traditional medieval reliquary to house remnants of saints and ancients. They’re not just vessels, in fact, as the exterior is modeled after the image of the deceased that it holds. Permanent, sterile, and replicable, Louis Marinaro’s cement rendition of the bust speaks to contemporary culture and how we participate in our own version of this funerary practice and the discord that ensues. Marinaro’s E emanates this very dissonance – an identifiable face with empty features, a human form but only in part, a name, even, but not a very human name. Even the formal components follow suit – depth with material but flat appliqué, rich detail with a quiet and subtle overlay. E holds its ground as one of the few three dimensional pieces of the faces exhibition. The spatiality of the sculpture yields its own sort of presence in the gallery, standing (or situated, rather, on a pedestal) in contrast to the oil paintings displayed on the walls.
Extremities – Exploring Hands and Feet & Losing Your Head – Exploring the Skull
The Marinaro sculpture is an excellent segue into the adjoining exhibitions as we examine humanity on a more micro level. Extremities and Losing Your Head were intended to serve as an extension of Face First, furthering the conversation about human interaction, human representation, and how we cope with the implications of both.
Comprised of figurative drawing, anatomical studies, and casts of appendages, the artists of these concurrent exhibitions present the body compartmentally, which in turn creates a strangely relatable experience for the viewer. The ambivalence of physical forms realized in Hyeyoung Shin’s Weight of Being Paper, and interior facets seen in Alia El-Bermani’s Ostrich Skull make the human experience far more ubiquitous and shared. To be able to relate to a human foot or animal skull more personally than a human face is a convicting thing, isn’t it? But herein lies the beauty of how these themes work in correlation; they reveal our incapacity to relate to others. Viewing a portrait simulates the reality of how we approach other people, that is, with presumption, and how we assign value to an individual based on race, socio-economics, gender, sexuality, and preference. With the prospect of achieving great depth in portraiture, there simultaneously exists inherent limitations to the genre, because those very limitations are found in us.
To reflect on humanity is such an odd and lovely thing. To conceive the subtleties of the individual, the complexities of the soul or to fashion an object in the image of one’s likeness is a profound gesture. To make yourself susceptible to the very nature of another, to recognize your similarities and differences and uphold the latter with great salience, to revere their essence as true and profitable, is achieved wonderfully through these exhibitions.
For a list of featured artists, visit http://www.manifestgallery.org/about/schedule.html.
To see the work yourself, visit Manifest Gallery located at
2727 Woodburn Avenue East Walnut Hills Cincinnati, Ohio 45206
The exhibition is on display through December 5, 2014