Exhibition Essays

2008 Reviews

September 2008

Face Value: Portraiture at Enjoy and the NZ Portrait Gallery

Mark Amery

Walking down Courtenay Place late last week, I was struck by the sight of a young girl in a pink fairy dress twirling round and around, completely in her own world of bliss.

I was thinking at the time about that staple artistic convention, the portrait, and why it continues to fascinate. Naturally we like to get closer to others - a delicious voyeuristic intimacy - and desire to understand others better. Yet what struck me about seeing that young girl twirling was that however close an artist spins us in, the world of that person remains closed to us. And it is in this tension that lies the fascination.

It's an awareness of this tension that helps an artist give a portrait artistic life. Likewise, the way an artist plays with the space between the truth revealed in a portrait and the viewer's understanding that a portrait is a construct of the artist's own making that can be crucial.

In the group photography show About Face at Enjoy Gallery of three New Zealand photographers and one German, smartly curated by Siv B. Fjaerestad, the subjects are all present but their minds are elsewhere. The photographers are not only interested in exposing their subject, but in exploring our distance from them behind the shoulder of the photographer.

In visitor Wolfram Hahn's series Disenchanted Playroom (shown in full at Auckland's Starkwhite until July 26) young children have been crisply photographed up close watching television, with the camera in front of them close to the screen.

Powerfully, Hahn locks onto these children at moments of utter absorption. They no longer care about the camera and its demand for their performance for it. There is something truthful about this approach. We know where their minds are at and in this way they are utterly open. Yet as much as Hahn's series might be seen as raising awareness of the power of television over our children, these images - with the portraits taken against neutral backgrounds - give the children an almost sculptural monumentality rather than vulnerability. Withholding their gaze and giving attention to an elsewhere, they hold the power.

Wellington's Virginia Woods-Jack provides twinned images of her subjects, one taken straight after the other. With the difference between shots being extremely subtle you're led to consider how powerful the smallest change in pose and gaze is to our view of a person, and thus how false that stilled impression can be. Looking slightly away from camera, these subjects suggest a familiarity with the photographer, but as with Hahn's work retain in their movement a control of their own image.

In the work of John Lake and Edith Amituanai there's an evocation of elsewhere in the actual photographs. Lake's subject is a teenager wearing a t-shirt featuring portraits of famous dead music stars, with the slogan "They all met together on the heaven" In an accompanying bookwork we're introduced to a young gang's claiming of a suburban dirt area for their own, and the importance of their mobile phones. We are invited into their own created elsewhere, while also aware of their wish to be anywhere but here.

Amituanai provides a family portrait by photographing a television, and an assortment in compartments in its cabinet of family photos, mementoes, Christian images and kitchen utensils, headed by a carved-in-leather name ‘Meleniuma'. This colour image is juxtaposed with a black and white one of a young girl in the islands. She is disengaged from where she is, in a dream, as if this was a memory from the past that has flown out of the colour image.

Meanwhile, the New Zealand Portrait Gallery have brought together two engaging exhibitions of painted portraits. With I AM Delicia Sampero creates a chequerboard of head shots of artists she knows, together with typed reflections by them (if and how they choose) on the theme of identity. The New Zealand coat of arms is stamped across these images as if these were passport identifiers. In this way Sampero explores the tension between the national cataloguing of identity and the fluidity of identity for individuals. Each person in portrayal however has been subjected to Sampero's flame-torched dreamy painting style. They're not really present - instead they're a community of spirits that crackle in Sampero's head and inform the artist and person she is. The proposition is that a portrait tells us more about the artist than its subject.

Deidre Copeland paints large almost hyper-realistic portraits where any intimacy is broken by their theatrical composition and by a concern with what the magnified skin of the subject, as a kind of landscape, can tell us of time and a human's place in it. Technically they often dazzle and are disarming in the confrontation set up between artist and subject, but with their heightened use of light and peek-a-boo play with the hard gaze of their subject I sometimes find them a little heavy-handed and empty in their play with the relationship between artist and subject.

Yet Copeland's strongest work asserts the continued power of paint with portraiture and her strong development as an artist. In ‘The Lost Chief' the subject's gaze moves us to the tiny feather he holds and on to exquisite knobby marbling of his giant hands, the eye traveling across the folds and bumps of skin and bone as if were a Central Otago range.

About Face, Enjoy Gallery, until 2 August; I AM, Delicia Sampero and Facescapes, Deidre Copeland, Shed 11, until 14 August


Originally published by The Dominion Post