Washington, DC

Julee Holcombe

Conner Contemporary Art

Bill Viola, Cindy Sherman, and Hiroshi Sugimoto, among others, have successfully refreshed the genre of Old Master portraiture via distinct contemporary approaches that retain the haunting, timeless quality of their historical inspiration. Julee Holcombe’s “Homo Bulla” (Man Is a Bubble), her debut solo show at Conner Contemporary Art, ventured fearlessly into this realm with seven portrait photographs that range from utterly intoxicating to largely resistible. In this bifurcated show, three group portraits stood out for their confidence and authority; the others seemed experimental, tenuous, or simply incomplete.

Holcombe’s updated dadaist technique involves shooting hundreds of digital photographs, then using a computer to montage them into seamless compositions. It’s an approach that risks visual chaos, but she succeeds by employing a controlled optical dissonance. A complicated process of filtration and distillation effectively orchestrates lighting, texture, volume, depth, and geometric form. Her visual relationships are constructed through the heightening of some components’ intensity and the tamping down of others. People, for example, appear sculptural, while their settings are flattened. Depth is selectively compressed, and interplays of verticals and horizontals both confine and animate. In psychological terms, a subtle flux of personality is revealed, which Holcombe harnesses to particular effect in the group portraits.

Though Holcombe has cited Pieter Bruegel, Francisco de Zurbarán, Caravaggio, and Hieronymous Bosch as influences, references to Petrus Christus, Dosso Dossi, and Pieter Claesz are also readily discernible in her work. Fortunately, the artist’s project consists of more than just clever mimicry; the aesthetic that it reveals is sophisticated, and her inquiry into the blurred distinction between photography and painting, for example, is fascinating. Holcombe falters only when she leans on heavy-handed sentiment, as in The Proprietor (all works 2005), a visual polemic about an archetypal scheming white male politician.

The show’s title work, Homo Bulla, depicts two boys posed against an inky background. One, Gameboy in hand, cautiously peers from behind his long, dark locks, while the other, resembling the subject of a late portrait by Frans Hals, gazes wistfully at airborne bubbles. Also present are metaphorically charged seventeenth-century Dutch vanitas symbols including a recently snuffed candle and a broken hourglass. The Banker’s Daughters is a contemporary reverie in muted tones and textures, refined and luxurious in a low-key, modern way. The composition’s rigidity is relieved by the sylphlike presence of the three girls, who are all wearing white dresses; the older two are standing while the youngest lies on a sofa. They are flanked by two resonant visual cues: On the left, a white porcelain urn’s surface suggests Jan Vermeer’s wet-in-wet technique, while on the right, beyond a set of glass doors, a tornado nears—perhaps a reference to individual or interpersonal tensions.

In The Feast of the Newlyweds, the most captivating work in the exhibition, two lanky young people sit between drawn, pleated red velvet drapes and in front of cheap wood paneling. Holcombe includes a few sly humorous touches: A stag’s head is mounted on the wall behind the figures, and slices of bread are arrayed on a ledge before them. Contrary to traditional portrait conventions, the woman looks directly at the viewer while the man glances sideways, toward his wife. She proffers a brightly colored tiger lily rather than a symbolically pure white one, and the sexual charge between them is subtle but palpable. Among artists engaged in the productive reworking of historical genres, Holcombe showed herself here to be already one of the most daring and insightful.

Nord Wennerstrom