Trevor, Oil on Board 2010, 5"x 3.5"

Rob Anderson’s 24 small (3.5×5″) paintings (2009-present) of mostly male faces form a file along the south wall of the Rieveschl Gallery at the Carnegie. Anderson’s skill with his medium is evident. He precisely renders diverse hues, in defiance of the small dimensions of the board. The background is graphically reduced to large swathes of one or two colors (often cool hues) in order to give relief to his subjects. Meticulous brush strokes, subtle contrapposto, and anatomical correctness are engaged. Their classical frames, along with their identical sizes, present them in wholeness as a group.

In speaking with the artist at the opening, he made reference to the history of art and its tradition of the male portrait. This tradition, according to Anderson, was one of grandeur. Here, Anderson claims, he has reversed it with a smaller portrait.

Portraiture ostensibly offers the mimetic reproduction of an individual via an exact external reproduction and/or an expressive depiction of the subject’s interiority. However, I found myself wondering what kind of portraits Anderson created. The traditional portrait which he referenced to me features the gaze of the subject looking out from the painting at the viewer; we see their eyes and gaze. None of Anderson’s paintings do this. For example, his painting Trevor (2010) features an individual (presumably someone named Trevor) with his eyes closed. For all the individuals, this aversion of the eyes is a constant: either their eyes are closed, or, more often, looking away. Several even simply reveal the back of a man’s head, such as Head Study #1 (2010). Hence Anderson’s males seem to all experience themselves as objects of our gaze. For example, the aforementioned Trevor appears to retain his pose while knowingly looked upon (somewhat obvious considering the circumstance of being painted).

Nevertheless, the portraits communicate a sense of subjecthood (resisting “reification,” they are all real persons, not objects). Of this personhood, the personality traits seem identical in all of them: introverted, thoughtful, somewhat vulnerable–and tender. (The voyeurism imbues them with sensuality, if one finds voyeurism sensual.) In this sense, as portraits, one may find that they are hence depictions of a single individual, reproduced in the guise of different men. In other words, one may claim that the qualities and attributes of Anderson’s own personality is here represented in the multiplicity, not that of Trevor et. al.

Head Study #1, Oil on Board, 2010, 5" x 3.5"

I am not sure of this; I find it more accurate to witness in his works an aspect of “contemporary” individuality. As Anderson indirectly noted in his art historical reference, there is a reduction in the psychological status of the male today, what has been sometimes refered to as “the decline of the Oedipus.” His figures seem to question themselves in their states of introspection as to what constitutes their identity. No longer easily asserted as dominant by a subservient female (or other minorities), these males seek self-composure in thought. It is a form of masculinity that is, quite simply, not formed or “in formation.” They are all in isolation, yet bound to one another by their consistent dimensions. Anderson’s portraits offer an image of a non-hegemonic masculinity, in all the senses described as qualities in his images–from the averted gaze to the size of the actual composition. I find that they hence comprise the portrait of an age, the “new male” of contemporary times.

The artist makes visible through the medium of his craft human interiority. Hence the portrait particularly enables the confrontation with concrete individuality. In the particular case of Anderson’s work, his reimagining of traditional portraiture enables us to experience the changing nature of human identity by way of comparison with past works, in particular that of masculine identity.

The changing nature of gender identity is especially evident in some of the other artists exhibited at the Carnegie’s “A Closer Look.” Kristin Ungerecht, Sadie Collins, and Tammi O’Hair in the Hutson Gallery also exhibit portraiture of sorts, although through photography and female subjects. Kristina Bogdanov and the Youth Gallery artist Katlyn Brumfield explore identity through their requisite mediums. Hence it is not just a male phenomenon. It is notable in the context of Anderson’s portraits of men that many of the female figures (of these latter artists) meet our gaze. Perhaps, then, the female of today is more empowered in her identity than the “new male,” at least in the context of this exhibition.

– A.C. Frabetti

“A Closer Look” at the Carnegie Visual and Performing Arts Center, 1028 Scott Boulevard, Covington, KY, 41011 ~ 859.491.2030. Through June 24, 2011.

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