Arts The face in the bag

The Portrait Show suggests we are what we consume

Portraiture has a bad rap. Between stuffy ancestor paintings and those awful senior photos with the fog machine, we’ve grown a bit jaded. On the other hand, portraiture happens more than you think. For example, what picture do your luggage contents paint of you at the airport? And why shouldn’t the government know what books we check out at the library if the surveillance isn’t a huge personal invasion? The fact is, possessions compose revealing portraits of us that may be judged either dangerous or benign. When photography was invented in the 19th century, the pressure on painting and sculpture to hand down likenesses subsided and abstract art forms flourished. Now there is more room to play imaginatively with portraiture that doesn’t involve a Dorothy Hamill haircut.

Ana de Portela’s conceptual portraits comprised of shopping lists hang in front of Seth Camm’s images of homeless people at the CAMPsite Portrait Show. (Photo by Julie Barnett)

The Portrait Show explores the subject while inaugurating CAMPsite, the new gallery space on the main floor of Linda Pace’s CAMPstreet lofts. Alice Carrington Foultz curated the show with an eye for artists who see others through a conceptual lens. In the middle of the room, little pieces of paper run down the length of ribbons that hang from the ceiling like jungle vines. Each scrap is somebody’s shopping list in either English or German — a collection of sociological remnants that reveal how we eat, write, and order our ideas. Ana de Portela began collecting and displaying shopping lists in 1997. Hanging vertically on top of one another, they mimic the items stacked in columns — bread, toothpaste, Nutella. They are so intimate, and the stationery styles are so diverse, that they make you laugh and wonder even more about the list-makers, while feeing a little guilty for snooping.

Chuck Ramirez is known for photographing post-feast dining tables and translucent garbage bags as diaristic ways of seeing past events. In his latest series, purses, he unzips bags to photograph contents in mid-jumble. Named after their owners, the purses are either small and fashionable, with only the basic necessities, or large and bulging with books, wallets, and cigarettes. Like de Portela’s shopping lists, each small necessity constructs a picture of an invisible person through her or his basic necessities. While the rest were women’s purses, “(High Life) Rudy” revealed the well-packed man-bag of an art-loving, first-class-flying jetsetter — something that doesn’t always fall open in front of me in coach — so I lingered.

Other artists found ways, sometimes mysterious ones, for capturing people. Marilyn Lanfear makes intimate portraits with “linkage drawings” from her “Woman Shapes the House” series. She strings together lead plates in apron shapes encased by multi-sided frames.

The Portrait Show

By appointment
Through Jan 5

114 Camp Street

Lordy Rodriguez makes fictional maps reflecting the sitters’ answers to questions about favorite environments, while John Holt Smith’s spectral paintings are images that have been broken down on the computer into luminescent bars of colors. Linda Pace’s horizontal bands of collected objects are organized by a single color — everything from Dollar Store toys to V.I.P. passes. It’s hard, though, to imagine a Very Important Person shopping at the Dollar Store. Her “Portrait (Catherine Cooke)” is more authentically an affectionate assembly of a personality through newspaper clippings, photographs, and objects from foreign travel.

There is one foil to the exhibition, whose inclusion turned dyed-in-the-wool contemporary artists in knots on opening night. Seth Camm is a traditionalist, painting veristic portraits of homeless people and collecting their stories. His subjects are just as invisible, as recent events have taught us, as those of a conceptual artist who avoids physical likenesses. Camm attended the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts. Interestingly, so did Ivan Albright who painted the famous decaying painting for the 1945 film version of The Picture of Dorian Gray. If only a portrait really could absorb all our sins.

By Catherine Walworth

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