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At Museum of Fine Arts, St. Petersburg, good portrait is more than just uncanny likeness


Portraiture is a confrontational sport. It's a mind game played between artist and subject, and, obviously, it's a physical act. The point of a portrait, more than any other genre, is revelation. You can see 46 examples from the 20th and 21st centuries at the Museum of Fine Arts, St. Petersburg, most of them paintings, plus sculptures and photographs that range from skin-deep to soul-baring.

In general, I like the photographic portraits the best, perhaps because in them we see how far that medium has evolved as an art form from its origins as a "third eye" that was used to record someone or something with factual fidelity. Nan Goldin's haunting Guido on the Dock, Venice, for example, never shows us a face. Instead, a dark figure stands shrouded in mist, looking out to sea. It could be an uncomplicated moment but — being human beings — we read more import into it, the conveyance of longing. It's more eloquent than a straight-on facial expression, and more nuanced, encouraging us to make our own assumptions.

Roland Fischer's Untitled (L.A. Portrait) does give us a face, a beautiful Asian woman whose head and shoulders rise from a cerulean blue pool of water. Formally, it's a lovely portrait, composed to resemble the classical busts carved from marble or cast in bronze. And like those hard elements, the water is still, as if she, too, has been captured — here, in a solid, milky acrylic, transfixed before us forever.

Like real relationships, some of the portraits are more complicated. Luis Gispert's Untitled Room shows a woman and presumably her children decked out in finery but not on their best behavior.

And Alex Sweet uses a pencil to create elaborate patterns that draw you close to the paper. Step back and they become a man who raises his fists at us, protecting his face, and, but for the title, Rehearsal, we might think he's after us. But no, he's just warming up for a boxing match.


So, too, does Chuck Close mesmerize us with pattern in his inimitable style that employs tiny squares squiggled with color set in a grid that resolves at a certain distance into a person. Works such as these seem more about the process than the personality.

Dinh Q. Le uses process in service to his subject matter in a direct way. He cuts photographs into thin strips and weaves them together in a mat like the straw ones used as seats and beds in Asian cultures. He was born in Vietnam in 1968. The narrative, in this case, is a montage that puts a personal face on the Vietnam War, flowing like film footage with vintage family images juxtaposed against soldiers and a young girl dressed too provocatively. They are the fleeting impressions of memory bound together in the warp and woof of paper.

Baby King II deals with a past which Hung Liu hasn't experienced; her portrait of a royal child has been drawn from a knowledge of her Chinese history. But the portrait seems just as personal. As in Goldin's photograph, we read an emotional metaphor into the painting. If she's using a favored style of the abstract expressionists in those drips, then we can also believe she's infusing them, as did her predecessors, with meaning. Her subject is surrounded by slashes of paint that diminish to finality, suggesting both violence and a life cut short.

Am I overfunctioning on this? Studying portraits can do that to a person. We're trained from an early age to respond to the most minute tics in one another, so we can understand what's up with anyone from a parent to the person in line behind us at the deli counter. A good portrait gives you the sense that you're looking at more than a representation. And like their real counterparts, the people in portraits are never fully knowable. We just get to share some space with them for a time.

This exhibition cuts across a lot of geographical borders and aesthetic sensibilities. There are names big and not so big on the wall labels. They cross-pollinate with each other. It's interesting to see the cool hipness of Elizabeth Peyton's insouciant young man in fresh colors in the same gallery with Y. Z. Kami's muted take on an old man, painted in oil to resemble a fading photograph.

Untitled (Figure #2) is probably not the best work in the show, but Salomon Huerta's young girl sitting with her back to the viewer moves me. It's powerful in its isolation and self-effacement. I feel empathetic toward her, protective of her, dressed so stolidly in white socks and sensible black shoes. Her shoes and socks, her severe haircut and her perfect posture in an ugly folding chair give her dignity and poignancy. I want to tap her on the shoulder, give her a high-five-me smile. Then again, she's probably just fine. It's all in my head.

Lennie Bennett can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8293.

. Review

The Human Touch

The exhibition, from the RBC Wealth Management Collection, is at the Museum of Fine Arts, St. Petersburg, 255 Beach Drive NE, through Sept. 4. Hours are 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Saturday and noon to 5 p.m. Sunday. Admission is $17 adults, $15 seniors, $10 students with ID and kids 7 and older. MFA Cafe is open from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday. (727) 896-2667 or

At Museum of Fine Arts, St. Petersburg, good portrait is more than just uncanny likeness 06/04/11 [Last modified: Saturday, June 4, 2011 4:30am]
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