A review of “A Closer Look: Portraits from the Paul G. Allen Family Collection” at Pivot Art + Culture in Seattle, which hangs photos and paintings together by such artists and photographers as John Coplans, David Hockney and Guy Tillim.
One of the portraits in Guy Tillim’s series depicting child soldiers in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
The real showstopper among the 70-odd pictures in Pivot Art + Culture Gallery’s just-opened portrait exhibition is a group of John Coplans’ close-up photographs of his own hands. The four enormous prints focus on the interlacing of the artist’s hairy, wrinkled fingers, which here become stand-ins for all manner of fleshly couplings. The images call into question the conventional canons of portraiture: Does the artist identify so closely with his hands? Is he celebrating, or bemoaning, their lumpy physicality?
Truth to tell, there are not many surprises in the enjoyable, but unexceptional, “A Closer Look,” entirely composed of art on loan from software mogul and arts patron, Paul Allen. The depth of Allen’s holdings is such that another show of his art will come to town while the Pivot exhibit is still hanging, and that exhibit is on another level entirely. The selection of Allen’s landscape paintings coming to SAM in early 2017 is a stellar grouping of signature works by artists ranging from Breughel (the Younger) to Magritte, any of which SAM would love to be given.
Pierre-Auguste Renoir painted “The Reader,” in 1877, when he was at the height of his portrait-painting skill.
In the portrait show photographs dominate, and a recurring motif is celebrated people dramatically lit, such as the overly familiar image of a saintly Albert Einstein with his a halo of unwieldy hair. Here as well are the young Laurence Olivier and David Bowie, fresh, vital, and radiating sensuality. Picasso glares at us as if we will be his next conquest, while Jasper Johns stares intensely off into space. Alexander Calder seems almost angry as he contemplates his next move with his famous miniature circus, while Frank Lloyd Wright appears bemused to be standing in the patterned shadow of one of his signature facades.
The curator, Greg Bell, has mostly arranged the photos into groups, such as scientists, movie stars, musicians and Native Americans. Particularly striking are the pictures of African men photographed in fashion magazine style totally at odds with their actual circumstances; scavenging from a burning dump of electronic waste (Pieter Hugo), or training with homemade gear for deployment with Congolese rebels (Guy Tillim).
The paintings seem to take second place to the photographs; although there are marquee names (Degas, Renoir, Gauguin, Bacon) the works here are small, scattered among the photos, and seem almost out of place. But we can’t miss the lurid Hockney, life-size, neon-bright, a fly-on-the-wall look at two men in intimate conversation, or the 9-foot Y.Z. Kami “Gardener,” dematerializing into its white background. Worth tracking down are two diminutive black crayon figures by pointillist Georges Seurat, a master study of painterly restraint and poetry, the people just an excuse to explore pure form and atmosphere.
Bell has also mounted a small local accompaniment to the Allen exhibition in a separate gallery, where portrait photography, video, painting, sculpture and drawing by NW artists make a strong showing. Bell’s installation amusingly sets up a staring match between Akio Takamori’s monumental ceramic “Boy” and Storm Tharp’s “Sister” on the facing wall. “Sister” is a collage extravaganza in which a highly sculptural female head is pieced together, like a personality, with a multiplicity of sometimes contradictory textures. Looked at more closely, the picture reveals a second face peeking out from behind the first; “Who am I, really?” the work seems to suggest, a question common to many great portraits.