I recall the wave of disappointment I felt on seeing the last painting in Elizabeth Peyton’s survey at the New Museum last winter. I’d liked Peyton’s lush colors and languid, Schiele-esque figures, even if the faces looked sort of samey. I saw why she loved Curt Cobain—his bone structure fit her formula. But then came the portrait that had been slipped into the show the day after Obama won the election–an awkward and unconvincing rendering of the new first lady, her features sharpened into something inappropriately angular, her blackness slathered on like war paint, and the intense, insistent, infuriating whiteness of the art world was rammed home for me, once again, in a painting whose very presence communicated only absence. A person of color was conspicuously out of place, even aesthetically unmanageable, in this high art hothouse.
Phong Bui, from “The Family of Mind,” 2009
Not so in “Beyond Appearances,” a fabulous group show at Lehman College Art Gallery (marking the 25th anniversary of this consistently innovative cultural outpost in the Bronx.) A multimedia bonanza, it throws together such unlikely bedfellows as Andres Serrano, Dottie Attie, and Tony Oursler (whose green aluminum splat frames a videotaped face whose nutty mutterings include repetitions of the word “superstition.”)
Some of the most arresting pieces leap far beyond traditional representation: Daniel Rozin’s “Peg Mirror” is a disarmingly intimate portrait of, well, me. Or you–depending who stands in front of it. A round “mirror” of motion-sensitive wood discs tracks your movements with a seductive electronic rustling as you approach, catches your crude outline as you stare like a trapped animal in silent amazement, then registers your vaguely guilty retreat. I watched a trio of students horse around in front of it, mugging for the cycloptic eye that beheld them, as a fourth, holding a camera, tried to capture its image catching hers.
Devorah Sperber’s “After Van Gogh” also rewards participation: her canvas of colored spools of thread form an upside down portrait; when you walk closer and view it through a glass sphere mounted on a pole, it rights itself and becomes Van Gogh, miniaturized. He’s yours, having leapt from the wall straight into your own body bubble.
In Deborah Willis and Hank Willis Thomas’ “After Madonna,” a topless, digitized Madonna holds her beautiful baby, glowing with maternal pride. But alas, her belly button has migrated to her side and one nipple has disappeared altogether. She’s as unnatural in her maternity as any virgin knocked up by God.
Even the more traditional drawing and sculpture in “Beyond Appearances” gives you a good-natured conceptual whack: Nina Levy’s “Large Head” is giant polyester rendering of a wide-eyed toddler who floats above the room, assuming the ridiculous proportions our own children tend to occupy in our consciousness.
And some of these pieces are simply lovely, like Whitfield Lovell’s “Deuce,” a crayon on wood portrait of a weary looking young couple pulled from the past. It looks like a tintype made of wood.
In this show, diversity is a mere given. It’s the bounty of forms and affects that push these portraits beyond appearance, seizing not the subject, but the viewer, in the moment of perception.
Tags: Andres Serrano, contemporary portraits, daniel rozin, Deborah Willis and Hank Willis Thomas, devorah sperber, Dottie Attie, Elizabeth Peyton, Lehman College Art Gallery, Nina Levy, Tony Oursler, Whitfield Lovell