New Art Exhibit: What Constitutes a Portrait?

Chase Shustack, Reporter

“Contemplating Character: Portrait Drawings and Oil Sketches” is the newest art installation in Insalaco Hall’s Pauly Friedman and MacDonald Art Gallery.

The installation showcases a variety of portraits, sketches and paintings, assembled over the course of decades, exploring multiple styles from the end of the 18th century to the modern day.

“There is a lot of work here, with many styles represented. There are many famous artists and anonymous people represented,” explained Gallery Director Dr. Lalaine Little.  “The self-portrait style is prevalent in art history, but there are many different styles, such as caricatures, paintings and sketches.”

Many works are arranged throughout the installation proper. The portraits, true to the director’s words, represent broad style and skill, and they range from lavish oil paintings to warped cartoonish figures and even simple, notebook sketch-like imagery.

The portraits are arranged into several categories, each representing a unique style and emotion.

A simple quiet stillness in “Repose and Endings” is portrayed by a hardware store owner lying in his coffin surrounded by tools, a close-up of a dancer asleep in his deathbed, and a morbid, grimy portrait of a mother and child, their faces decayed and warped to reveal skeletal, empty visions.

A display of emotion in “Drama and Imagination” includes severed heads that gawk, scowl and cough in sketched scribbles. A bizarre display of a rabbit-like man runs through a library in a Sunday comic-like portrait. Two men in watercolor play violins for spare coins in the street.  A charcoal man with a turban stares in amazement into the distance enveloped in a swirling, nebulous background

The portrayal of simple people in “Sitters as Subjects” includes women in plain dress as they lounge and pose before the artists, some with smiles, some with frowns, some clear, some obscured.

“Fame” illustrates famous people long passed in a series of stills, which include a famous English Evangelist, the warped cartoonish form of a famous actor, and a cross between an engineer and his machines, which seem to hiss and clank off the paper and into the gallery.

The unique styles of the artists themselves are captured in “Self-Portraits.” Warped, colorful streaks obscure an artist’s face in one work. Another artist paints himself as reflected in shining glass instruments. The category includes the paintings of Louis-Joseph-Cesar Ducomet, a painter born without arms.

The entire gallery is composed not just of simple paintings one would find in a museum or in the back of an art history book. The exhibit displays the transformation of portrait art. Paintings of the full subject, as seen in Colonial days, fall away to more experimental, bold styles brought about by the revolutionary technology: photography. Artists were free to create their own styles and personalities in the forms of caricatures, cartoons, and sketches. Unusual experimental styles reign, from the morbid to the peaceful, to the cartoon-like to the more realistic, allowing artist to develop themselves in a more loose, uncontrolled style.

But, how to look at these works of art? Sure, they are weird and sometimes even a bit simple, so what is the appeal to the paintings, revolutionary or not?

“To really engage in art,” Little said, “you must really meditate on the painting, focus on it. Examine everything on the subject, the style, the message, the colors. Try to understand what the message is from how you see it, rather then how anyone else sees it.”

She said there are four actors in the show: artists, subjects, collectors, and the viewers.

The installation will be open until Dec. 2.

The public is also invited to attend a Student Research Symposium Nov. 7 from 3 to 6 p.m. in the McGowan Conference Room in the Library. Jenny Kenyan, Forensic Artist and Instructor at Penn State University, will be the featured speaker.