Portraits of the Artists

No development in the history of art changed the nature and function of portraiture as dramatically as the invention of photography. Before photography, portraits were more or less about documenting reality, preserving a person's distinctive look and bearing for both the present and posterity.

Photography changed all that. No painter or sculptor, however skillful, could compete with a medium that, by its very nature, captured reality rather than just re-creating it. At the same time, photography liberated artists from the demands of realism, freeing them to explore a new kind of portraiture, one less concerned with mere appearances.

Five South Florida-based artists are represented in the show "Portraits" at the Coral Springs Museum of Art. A curator's statement is not posted, so it's impossible to say if the exhibition was assembled with the changes in portraiture in mind. Intentionally or not, however, the works address the issues raised by those changes in various ways and with varying degrees of success.

Two of the artists -- one a watercolorist, the other a sculptor -- forge ahead almost as if photography doesn't exist. Another artist, working primarily in oils and acrylics, goes after effects that photography couldn't possibly achieve. The remaining two use mixed media, including photographic paper and chemicals and actual photographs, to create hybrids that both acknowledge the impact of photography and attempt to subvert it.

In her "Bigger Than Life" series, Wilma Bulkin Siegel, a retired oncologist, presents large-scale, realistic portraits of her grandchildren and other kids. Her materials of choice are mainly mixed water media, sometimes applied to illustration board or wood but more often to paper.

Siegel has the eye for color we expect from a good watercolorist, and her work is competently executed. It's also a bit bland and lacking in resonance, because the images are essentially snapshots of the artist's loved ones. She has even supplied folksy little comments, such as a description of the subject of Mikey as "my three-year-old grandchild who 'rules the roost.'" Rather than illuminate the paintings in any way, these coy snippets reinforce the impression that we've been corralled into leafing through the photo album of a stranger.

There's a sort of resolute realism to these pictures that suggests Siegel is willfully oblivious to the possibilities opened up to portrait-painting after the advent of photography. Something comparable is at work in the sculptures of Jan Errichetti, whose busts and full-figure pieces here are mostly realistic.

"I feel compelled to work in the figurative way," Errichetti writes in her artist's statement, adding that she tries to capture the expressiveness of children's faces in her work. Why, then, do the faces in her sculptures look so blank and soulless, so unanimated? The swimsuit-clad girl sitting on a pile of rough-edged rocks in Wishing, for instance, seems less engaged in the title activity than overcome by stupor.

Errichetti's strength lies not in her undistinguished realism but in her choice of raw materials, as well as in the deft ways she manipulates the textures of those materials. There's no denying the classic beauty of Belgian black marble, pale gray Carrara marble, and salmon pink alabaster, but the sculptor achieves her most dramatic effects with more exotic stones. The emerald green onyx in King Neptune has gorgeous contrasts of swirling colors and textures, as does the blue-green onyx of River God.

The latter is easily Errichetti's best piece here because it breaks free, at least partially, of representative realism. It's a simple torso that's both headless and armless, with legs that abruptly end at the thighs, just beyond a mound of undefined genitalia. It's a stretch to call this a portrait, which is exactly the point. By experimenting with the notion of what constitutes a portrait, Errichetti has created a work that has more personality than all of her more realistic pieces put together.

The show's most gripping portraits are the dozen or so by Norman Liebman, a former surgeon whose stark, neo-expressionist heads are a dramatic departure from traditional portraiture. Liebman works with a mixture of oil and acrylic resin or acrylic polymer on canvas or wood, and each of his compositions typically includes head, neck, and shoulders set against a featureless background. Sometimes a detached head or face floats in a sea of paint.

Liebman appears to spend almost no time and energy on his empty backgrounds or his subjects' bodies, which slope sharply away from their elongated necks. Instead he lavishes attention on the heads, applying the pigment in thick swaths and smudges of color with such gestural ferocity that the faces seem vibrantly, painfully alive.

In his artist's statement, Liebman insists that his paintings "represent no specific people. I have attempted to convey a spirit of universality to each." Maybe so, but each of the artist's works here has a distinct personality that voices itself with frightening urgency and immediacy, and Liebman usually gives the paintings individual if somewhat generic names: Jennifer, Sara, Jane, Christie. One miserable-looking creature bears the ghoulishly ironic title Merry.

Like Francis Bacon, Liebman portrays his subjects contorted with extremes of emotion, their mouths sometimes frozen in a scream or cry. He smears and blurs their features so that only the basic elements remain: a hint of a nose here, the idea of a pair of eyes there. And yet, ironically, by wiping away almost all specific details, he attains a visceral intensity that's often missing in more literal portraiture.

The Colombian-born, mixed-media artist Diego Andres Quijano takes an even more drastic approach to creating portraits and sometimes arrives at results as striking, in their own way, as Liebman's. Six of Quijano's 16 pieces are oils on stretched canvases, to which he has applied wide, bold strokes of black that are vaguely suggestive of female bodies.

Far more provocative are his other ten works. Compositionally they're similar to the oils, although the brush strokes are freer and much more abstract, at times summoning up the fluid lines of Asian calligraphy. But the medium is what's most fascinating. These "paintings" consist of pieces of photographic paper daubed with chemicals and mounted on panels of canvas that hang loosely from thin strips of wood on the wall, so that the sides and bottoms of the canvas are free to curl, like photographs hung to dry in a darkroom. It's as if Quijano is daring us to deny the implications photography has for contemporary portraiture.

The remaining artist in the show, Beth Ravitz, combines photography, sculpture, collage, and paint to create installations that radically redefine portraiture. Taken together they form what Ravitz calls the "Identity Series," which draws on imagery from her formative years in the '50s and her current life as a wife, mother, and decidedly feminist artist.

The series is more or less a rambling self-portrait that also draws on the lives of other women to help flesh out an autobiography. The ambitious piece Who Am I? is housed in its own little alcove and includes several complementary elements. On the wall, spilling from a fake-flower-bedecked curtain rod onto the floor, is a pale blue curtain overlaid with a veil of transparent tulle, which in turn is overlaid with five wide ribbons of clear plastic bordered by tiny fake pearls.

Ravitz asked 30 women of varying ages to ask themselves, "Who am I?" Their responses are printed in black type on the clear plastic and in three notebooks that rest on a wooden platform directly across from the wall-mounted segment. The installation is completed by a rectangular wooden grid, piled with more tulle, that hangs from the ceiling in the center of the space, with 30 unmatching women's shoes suspended on lacy red garters. The shoes are labeled with the names of the women featured in the other segments of the piece.

Aside from some skewed ruminations on female identity, I'm not sure what Ravitz is up to here, which is part of what makes the work such fun. The same is true of some of her other pieces, including some domestic items -- an ironing board, a muffin tin, kitchen utensils -- that have been collaged with photographs, mostly black-and-white, of the artist and friends and family members from various stages of her life.

The self-referential quality of the "Identity Series" wears thin after a while, but Ravitz scores some well-earned points along the way. Among the strongest is the suggestion that, for this extended self-portrait, neither traditional portraiture nor photography is sufficient, because each freezes its subject at a particular point in time. To convey the multiple facets of character Ravitz seems to be seeking, she must conflate past and present, as well as a profusion of artistic media.

"Portraits" is one of the first exhibitions mounted at the Coral Springs Museum since it made the transition from being the Schacknow Museum earlier this spring, when the city returned the money wealthy artist and philanthropist Max Schacknow had put up for the project, along with the large collection of the artist's mostly mediocre pictures that had taken up the museum's east wing, a series of small, intimate display spaces off the spacious, airy, light-drenched main gallery.

For this show the east wing is filled with the works of both the exhibition's most conservative, traditional portrait artist, Wilma Bulkin Siegel, and its most daring, genre-busting artist, Beth Ravitz. It's an odd but somehow pleasing combination that bodes well for a museum out to reestablish itself as a vital cultural force.

"Portraits" is on display through June 20 at the Coral Springs Museum of Art, Coral Springs City Centre, 2855 Coral Springs Dr., Coral Springs, 954-340-4200.

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Michael Mills