About Face: Portraiture as Subject
The Blanton Museum of Art, Austin, TX
By S.E. Smith
It hardly seems coincidental that multi-artist shows at educationally-affiliated museums often make didactic use of their themes. Such shows, especially when arranged around a current political topic or matter of recent academic intrigue, frequently fall into the trap of forcing connections or boldly revising a work’s context. The Blanton Museum’s current exhibition About Face is an exception: rather than yoking its impressive selection of works from the Blanton’s extensive collection to illustrate a narrow theoretical point, About Face takes portraiture as its curatorial impulse, successfully using the genre to explore tricky aspects of selfhood and representation.
Andy Warhol, Farrah Fawcett (1980), synthetic polymer paint and silkscreen on canvas, 40 x 40 inches. Blanton Museum of Art, The University of Texas at Austin, bequest of Farrah Fawcett, 2010. ©2011 The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, Inc.
About Face includes forty works ranging from prints by Albrecht Dürer and Rembrandt to Oliver Herring’s hyper-real photography sculptures and Kehinde Wiley’s lavish oils of hip-hop stars. Much will be made of Warhol’s entry, a screen-printed image on canvas of Farrah Fawcett in the same color-blocked mode as his better-known portraits of Marilyn Monroe and Jackie Kennedy Onassis [not to be confused with the Warhol Fawcett portrait currently the subject of a lawsuit between University of Texas and Ryan O’Neal]. Elsewhere in the show Richard Pettibone references Warhol’s energetic, commercialized yet intimate treatment of iconic faces, but Warhol’s take on Fawcett is chillier—closer to an image on a tote bag. Working with the face of Chairman Mao, Warhol used color to project a prism of humor and gesture onto a face, but Fawcett is instead flattened by her depiction, reduced to blue eye shadow and red lipstick.
It’s difficult to ignore the shift from portraiture as a means of fixing and embellishing representations of the mighty to the more meditative and mutable array of meanings available in contemporary works. This may be due in part to technological shifts that make the task of representing someone less potentially grueling (the labor of taking a Polaroid rather than painting in oils or engraving a plate.) Some of the most bizarrely riveting prints on display are those of tremendously powerful figures surrounded chockablock by symbols of their might. Enea Vico’s portrait of Charles V depicts the emperor in a tangle of allusions so dense it would make a fine Where’s Waldo exercise for an art historian – framed by balustrades and columns with a far-off scene of laboring farmers, the emperor is wearing, strangely, a dead lamb as a pendant. Though the precise meanings may be obscure to uninitiated, it makes a fascinating exercise nonetheless. Inclusions like Vico’s counterbalance the breezy semantics of more familiar, pop-informed pieces, drawing out the gestural power not only of what the face contains but also its frame.