Los Angeles

Wendy MacNeil

Wendy MacNeil’s portraits have an eerie verisimilitude, of the sort associated (paradoxically) with funerary art—death masks, say, or the encaustic portraits painted on Roman-Egyptian mummy cases. Both the illusionism and the ritualistic quality of her photographs are heightened by her technique: she prints her pictures, mostly frontal headshots, in platinum and palladium (with the delicate chiaroscuro these metals give), on skinlike veils of vellum.

This striking combination of subject and process accentuates the intimacy of many of MacNeil’s portraits, especially those in “Ronald,” an ongoing series, begun in 1981, of otherwise uninflected shots of her husband. In portraits where the emotional bond between sitter and subject is weaker, though, the startling intensity of MacNeil’s technique gives her pictures a tinge of insincerity. In The Group Portrait of the Eight Tenured Members of the Art Department, Wellesley College, photographed in 1980 and printed in 1981, for example, MacNeil’s printing and posing techniques become merely a collection of somewhat stilted references to the history of photographic style, directly recalling the moody grandiosity of the work of Abraham Southworth and Josiah Hawes.

MacNeil seems to have recognized the difficulty of finding appropriate subjects for her technique. In earlier work she attempted to make cumulative portraits of her sitters by combining her photographs of them with other photos—snapshots and studio portraits, say, some from thirty or fifty years before. More recently she has undertaken “portraits” of hands, again photographed specimenlike against plain backgrounds. As with her more conventional portraits, these hand studies succeed most when MacNeil allows the particularity of her subjects to emerge clearly, without obvious prompting, as in My Grandmother’s Hand, 1983–84, and Adrian Sesto, 1977–82. But here as elsewhere, MacNeil occasionally pushes her technique too far, making it seem gimmicky. In Snyder Family Portrait, 1980–84, for example, she presents the hands of five members of her own family, each photographed against a neutral white ground. The hands do indeed have a strong family resemblance: to a greater or lesser degree, all have a characteristic jutting thumb joint. But MacNeil has had each person sign his or her “portrait” across the top—in their own hands, so to speak. The effect of this final fillip is to reveal the photographer self-consciously staging the event, and the photos, and to distract us from the central fascination of the pictures—that oddly angular thumb, and what it reminds us of the nature of families.

In attempting to extend the photographic portrait so that it more closely suggests both the physical qualities of its subjects and the passage of time, MacNeil has set herself a difficult but potentially rewarding task. In her best works she uses the intensity of the photographic gaze to revel in mortality. Her photographs take on the character of caresses, evoking the sheer materiality, the fleshiness, of human existence.

Charles Hagen