Critics’ Picks

View of “Retratos Pintados,” 2010.

View of “Retratos Pintados,” 2010.

New York

“Retratos Pintados”

Yossi Milo Gallery
245 Tenth Avenue
June 24–September 18, 2010

In the eternal return of contemporary aesthetics, the search for a new medium often leads to the recuperation of one that is felicitously outmoded. So it happens with “Retratos Pintados” (Painted Portraits): an assembly of small, hand-painted photographs from Brazil, which, precisely in their quaint obsolescence, appear strikingly new. Set against a uniform background (usually of sky blue or pea green), family members appear both individually and in groups, their faces and clothes enlivened with color. The (unidentified) artist often adds a sfumato shading to cheeks and noses, endowing the sitters with more corpulence and detail. At the same time, their outfits appear flattened and bounded by exaggerated outlines; the splayed lapels of men’s suits seem as much like abstracted patterns as actual garments. The tinted embellishments render certain individuals more animate; others appear, instead, something like dressed corpses, spectral and wan. Yet those transformations are often the most arresting precisely in their strangeness.

Resembling a “salon hang” in its serried proximity, the gallery’s display approximates how such portraits would have been hung in the homes of rural Brazilians. The works invite––especially given their clustered collectivity––not simply an aesthetic evaluation but also sociological attention. The cross section of physiognomies, ethnicities (African, European, and indigenous), and familial and class structures opens up a world as richly varied as it is anonymous. Certain anomalies further underscore the curiosity piqued by such inscrutability. One portrait bears a postage stamp, which reveals, in turn, a further portrait. Some sitters stare at the camera, while others look away blankly; some touch tenderly and some appear coldly distant. One poker-faced grandmother appears with her glasses entirely offkilter. The endearing––if unwitting––particularity of such details repays repeated looking.