Richmond, VA

“Portraits by Artists”

Anderson Gallery

The Virginia Commonwealth University has long had a solid facility for the studio arts, with an exceptionally low student-teacher ratio. It also operates the Anderson Gallery, which, though little-known outside of Richmond, offers diverse and energetic shows of contemporary art that include both local artists and those familiar to national audiences.

“Portraits by Artists” represents a particular attitude of one group of artists. Related to the underground influences of California funk, the irreverence of punk art and the irascibility of comic book art, the show has a brash liveliness at once adventuresome and self-assured. In varying degrees, the works are brilliantly colored and highly patterned.

Morris Yarowsky’s small portrait of Myron Helfgott exploits flat, garish colors. A bright pink face vibrates against a yellow background, intense green jacket and bright red tie. Yarowsky may have decided never to mix colors again, yet the undiluted strength of the color is thinly smeared over the surface, actually conveying an almost expressionistic mood. Other works included have the same combined energy and restraint, though paint is at times slathered onto the surface, as in Brett Wilson’s work. Wilson piles on the pigment as if painting were sculpture and violent emotion can only be conveyed through a tactile, energetic execution.

In contrast, Chris Silliman’s terracotta profile, a wall-hung bas-relief, portrays a face in a realistic near-caricature, without a trace of the violence in Wilson’s paint. The texture of bits of layered clay is the substance of the work; the head portrayed has an expression of expansive glee, but Silliman twists the pervasive funkiness into a surprisingly classical accomplishment.

Portrait of Renee by Mary Crenshaw and BS Wilson as a Suave Young Man by Sharon Lawless operate more strictly within the bounds of the punk-primitive, though Crenshaw’s Renee and Lawless’ Young Man are both carefully posed. Colors are strident, often clashing, compositions deliberately off-balance and borders haphazard. Yet there is an overall sense of order to the work that bespeaks strict discipline. Lawless’ young man, pipe in hand, stands before a spotlight-type yellow area, throwing a heavy shadow—vaudeville style. Like most works in this show, Young Man is painted on wood, not canvas—as if that time-honored material is too respectable for this work. Again, the sensitive, realistic treatment of the man’s face converts blatant irreverence into controlled energy.

Similarly, Crenshaw’s Renee emphasizes toughness—Renee herself glares from a cardboard canvas, defiant and belligerent. Information races through the wide, multiple borders, styled as random marks but working as strikingly formal devices. Surrounded by these borders, the portrait rests inside as if contained within a commentary. Squiggles of yellow and black paint fight over the surfaces and Crenshaw adds gray splinters of wood throughout the border area, confusing the depth, playing with 3-D illusion.

Crenshaw and Lawless exemplify the tone of the show, and the group; a disguised formal inquiry using the strict frontality of portraits to examine contained pattern and color depth. They suffuse the work with raw energy, veering toward a primitive image just enough to tantalize. Putting funky color into the work, discarding traditional canvas, they nevertheless pursue essentially academic questions with perception and discipline. With flashy talent, this group of works shapes classical concerns into a thoroughly modern attitude.

One work in particular, however, breaks through to delve into emotion. Color and pattern follow the basic guidelines of the group work, yet Carla Davis has muted the garish vibrating contrasts into a dark gothic, nearly romantic palette. He Makes No Bones About It simplifies diverse elements into a single head against the motif of overall background stripes. Black and deep purple, the stripes act both as pattern and surface texture: thick and chalky, absorbing rather than reflecting. Davis takes a painterly stance at once regressive and progressive. Less self-consciously raw than the other works, this painting translates the familiar primitive or punk vocabulary to an emotive product that is direct and honest.

Deborah Perlberg