The great faces of historical portrait painting are embedded in our collective unconscious like ghosts in a psychic family album: Titian’s Man With a Glove, Thomas Gainsborough’s dewy The Blue Boy, Vincent van Gogh with his bandaged ear, John Singer Sargent’s sumptuous Lady Agnew of Lochnaw. ... These visages stare out implacably from the past, challenging us to fathom their psychologies and their times. Painter Sherrie Wolf takes up the subject head on in her new show, Faces, departing for the first time from the opulent and sly still lifes that have made her a well-known artist throughout the Northwest.
For this series, she homed in on faces culled from some of the best-known portraits and mythological paintings from the 14th to 19th centuries, rendering those faces in small-format (10-by-10-inch) oil on canvas. Caravaggio’s Bacchus is in the lineup, as are Vermeer’s Girl With the Red Hat and Girl With a Pearl Earring, one of Gilbert Stuart’s portraits of George Washington, Manet’s nude picnicker from Déjeuner sur l’Herb, and dozens of others. Because they are so closely cropped, we do not see any garments, just faces—ah, but not “just” faces. What we read into the plucked eyebrows and high foreheads of the Elizabethan age, the worry lines and pained expressions of Albrecht Dürer and Frans Hals, the tulip lips of Anthony van Dyck and fleshy nose of Anna Bilinska, allow us to project our fantasies of the subjects’ temperaments and zeitgeists, and ponder how similar or alien their lives might have been compared with ours.
Wolf carries out her study with considerable technical skill, but there is a flatness across the work that keeps it from being fully satisfying. In most cases, Wolf did not copy the original paintings, but painted after reproductions and reproductions of copies. This played into her fascination with the nature of facsimile but has done little to simulate or even translate the fire of the originals. Also, by expanding or shrinking the originals’ dimensions to fit her 10-by-10 format—and by glazing them uniformly into smooth surfaces bereft of the originals’ textural variety—she loses something essential of her source material’s proportions, brushwork, and ultimately, their spirit. One also gets the feeling Wolf could have taken the conceit further.
Last year at Francis Naumann Fine Art in New York City, painter Kathleen Gilje stripped portraitist John Singer Sargent’s iconic female subjects of their elegant gowns and portrayed them topless. It was an odd but effective approach, and above all a fresh one. What would it look like if Wolf brought her historic subjects into the 21st century? If she painted them, say, into profile pics from Facebook screen captures or deployed them as avatars in video games? Too gimmicky? Maybe. Less staid? Definitely. This is the beginning of a brand new series for Wolf. It will be intriguing to see what directions it takes in future shows.
GO: Faces at Laura Russo, 805 NW 21st Ave., 226-2754. Closes Aug. 28.