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The essence of portraiture

Face it. The nature of portraiture, like every other category in contemporary art, has changed.

"Face Value," the show of portraits now at the Tampa Museum of Art, presents the range of contemporary American portraiture, and then goes further. While it concentrates on the direction of the genre today, it places the works in context, surrounded by historical paintings affected by the invention that permanently altered the function of art: the camera.

Thus the viewer is one moment contemplating the drag makeup of gay black artist Lyle Ashton Harris and friend, near a portrait of himself with his mother, and the next moment is thrust among the fashionable ladies of 19th century American impressionist William Merritt Chase.

Chase's then-trendy style showed how the paint brush, freed of the requirement to paint for posterity, could be used to suggest not timelessness but a moment in time.

A half century later, in Boy in Blue Denim, Larry Rivers left much of the canvas intriguingly bare, yet still captured the essence of the boy.

For the portrait painter, the camera was a great liberator. If a likeness was all the subject wanted, a flick of the shutter could do the job. With the portrait removed from the commercial world, a broad range of free expression could occur.

Artists could turn their attention to choosing portraiture for reasons other than a commission. Portraits could tell a story, amuse, inspire or unveil the artist's attitude toward the subject. Self-portraits could show how the artist saw himself. Cindy Sherman's self-portraits in outrageous costume could go even further, suggesting the false fronts we present to the world.

The Parrish Art Museum, which organized the show, did not forget that portraits can also sell. It mixes fine art with unlabeled photos, commercial shots of models and celebrities and recent magazine covers of faces.

But the labeled works _ the art _ are the more intense experiences. Sometimes they record famous people: Leon Golub's acrylic portraits of Nelson Rockefeller from photos at various stages of his life; James VanDerZee's captivating stills of Jean-Michel Basquiat, Eubie Blake and Muhammad Ali.

Carrie Mae Weems turns family candids into a political act. Spread across one wall, they are accompanied by her own straightforward narrative on poverty, mixed ethnicity and other issues, written and on audiotape.

Alice Neel paints with economy of detail, creating caricatures of embarrassing familiarity that reveal the effects of age, the ineptness of youth and the foibles of the fortunate. She makes us all feel a bit more human. By seeing others, we have seen ourselves.

All these works are recognizable as portraits. Others challenge the category. Tony Oursler's serio-comic series, MMPI, uses a tiny video projector to cast a moving face on a rag doll. The subject rattles off responses to the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory, a standard psychological test used as a diagnostic tool.

Byron Kim's Emmet at Twelve Months is five rows of five rectangles, each the color of a specific part of his son's body, interpreted on a grid. Black squares represent eye and hair, red, the lower lip, and so on. The artist, rather than working from photos or a pose, chose the close and loving contact necessary to match paint to body.

The show has some problems, beyond the fact that the Parrish did not send many of the expected works. The haphazard arrangement, although appealing on a casual level, is difficult for viewers trying to trace chronology in the exhibit.

Even artists who are grouped together by wall plaques are not together in space. Eleanor Antin and Peter Campus are together toward the gallery entrance, but Hannah Wilke, the third person in their theme, is in a far corner. The point is lost.

Like it or not, viewers can't escape the continuous drone coming from the audios of Oursler and Weems. How about prominent ON/OFF buttons by each "audio" visual work so that the viewer can give full attention to learning what noiseless works have to say?

The show has an excellent byproduct: the too-rare opportunity to see work by top artists of today. The scarcity of such shows is the biggest failing of the bay area art scene because it keeps viewers behind the times. When we explore the concepts of artists such as Andy Warhol, Alex Katz, Cindy Sherman, Tony Oursler and Carrie Mae Weems, we gain a standard by which to assess the art created here and now.

AT A GLANCE

Face Value: American Portraits

Where: Tampa Museum of Art, 600 N Ashley Drive, Tampa

When: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday-Saturday, 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. Wednesday and 1 to 5 p.m. Sunday, through Aug 25

Cost: Adults $5; seniors and students with ID $4; children 6-18 $3. Free after 5 p.m. Wednesday and all day Sunday

Catalog: $24.95 in gift shop

Etc: Organized by the Parrish Museum of Art, Southampton. Tampa is the last of three venues

Call: Call 274-8130 (Tampa)

Also on temporary display

"Artists Look at Themselves: The Collection of Dr. and Mrs. August Freundlich," Center and Focus Galleries, through Aug. 18.

"Such Sweet Thunder," photographs by Herb Snitzer, NationsBank Florida Gallery, through September.

Related event

Thursday, noon _ Bradley Nickels speaks on "Face Values" at the First Thursday, Art for Lunch! series. Bring lunch; museum provides beverages. Free with paid admission.

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