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[whitespace] 'The Whole Is Only the Sum of Its Parts' Miss Miscellaneous: Helen Slater's mixed-media sculpture 'The Whole Is Only the Sum of Its Parts' is one of the works of self-portraiture at Pajaro Valley Gallery.


About Face

Group show of self-portraits reveals some artists and conceals others

By Tai Moses

WOODY ALLEN, asked by his friend Burt Britton to draw a portrait of himself, sketched a tiny disembodied head (a very good likeness) floating in the upper third of a sheet of paper. That minuscule noggin, suspended in a terrifying existential expanse of white, is a fitting self-image for an artist whose oeuvre is an ongoing investigation into his own psyche, fears and phobias.

The naturalist Loren Eiseley, given the same assignment, depicted himself as an affable mosquito with waggling antennae and curious eyes. And illustrator Maurice Sendak pictured himself as one of his much-loved Wild Things, a hairy beast with horns and snout and human feet.

For the Pajaro Valley Arts Council's fourth collective, co-curators Judy Stabile and Wendy Aikins asked artists to explore this fertile territory of self portrayal. The result, "Collective 2001: A Face Odyssey," is a big, dynamic exhibition of 74 local artists whose self-portraits are as revealing as the hastily drawn cranium of America's most neurotic filmmaker.

Self-portraiture asks the elemental human question, "Who am I?" The most universal response is a visual likeness of the artist's face--what could be more personal, more illuminating, more exposed? As this collection shows, the expressive possibilities of self-representation are infinite. I was most captivated by the works in which the portrait was used as a catalyst to playfully explore notions of artistic identity.

Oil painter Greg Hines' shimmering Self Portrait is a brilliant riff on the time-honored theme of artist-at-work. In a full-length view that fluently evokes the ecstasies and the agonies of the creative life, Hines portrays himself as artist-after-work, seated in a leather club chair in a red shirt and rumpled, paint-spattered pants, looking as if he's just come down off an artistic high. He's kicked off one shoe, but seems just too fatigued to remove the other. In one hand he holds a pair of eyeglasses, in the other a CD: Miles Davis' archetypal jazz masterpiece, Kind of Blue.

Artists have historically used the full-length portrait to depict the aristocracy, and in this picture Hines indeed resembles a weary but triumphal king, with his vibrant crimson shirt (color of royalty), his leather throne and eyeglass scepter and his crown jewel--jazz, the wellspring of his creative power.

Aptos painter David Fleming takes an affectionate backward glance at himself in his pensive Self Portrait as a Younger Man. Elbows on the table, head propped in hands, the artist's youthful self broods over a glass of beer in a beautifully rendered work with sensuous Modigliani lines and muted colors.

Several artists have fused iconic imagery with their own identities to create inspired forms of mimicry. Fourteen-year-old Caitlin Knox appropriates Warhol in her Pop-style diptych, Andy Warhol Wannabee, which features two prints of her face on yellow and blue squares of cardboard. And Jonathan Perez reprises the emblematic image that graces many a college dorm room in his red, black and white acrylic, Ernesto 'Che' Guevara.

'Self Portrait as a Younger Man' Beer in Mind: David Fleming paints a chapter from his life in 'Self Portrait as a Younger Man.'


Split Personalities

THE ALCHEMY that transforms discarded objects into unexpected treasure fuels Found Object Mandala, Bob Lyons' mixed-media sculpture. This fantastic disc--constructed from wood, metal, tile and carpet and adorned with shells, porcelain doorknobs and buttons--is a marvel of texture and form that begs to be touched (and the sign says "Please Touch"). Inquisitive fingers will discover that the hinged lid of a brass butterfly lifts to reveal riches within, photographs of the artist's two children.

In Case Closed, Betty Heil has fashioned a sort of survivor's suitcase that contains the grisly medical mementos of her battle with breast cancer: prescription pill bottles, photos of the artist after her mastectomy, a silicone breast form and other souvenirs of surgery. Garlanded with mordant slogans such as "What does not kill me makes me funnier," Heil's piece bristles with a hard-won cheeky defiance.

Helen Slater has cast her net wide and captured multiple female identities in The Whole Is Only the Sum of Its Parts, a wicker dress form festooned with what looks like every treasure in the kitchen junk drawer. Here Slater depicts the artist as magpie, a compulsive collector of knickknacks. Her dress is made of miscellany, her waist cinched with measuring tape and her head crowned with Christmas lights. Covered in campaign buttons, crayons, beads, trinkets, dollhouse furniture and refrigerator magnets, Slater's totemic wicker woman delightfully externalizes the magnificent turbulence of life.

Another take on multiple identities comes from Carol Trengrove, whose elegant photographic sculpture is formed from dozens of the artist's black-and-white prints torn into segments and stapled together. The intricate Möbius-strip exoskeleton is suspended from the ceiling and spins with a touch, creating an impressionistic collage of Trengrove's work.

Some of the artists who represented their physical selves added a fillip: for example, Barbara Lawrence's paradoxical acrylic/oil, Me on Shoulder of an Artist. The "Me" of the title is a bright green parrot, jauntily perched on the artist's shoulder. The artist's unflinching outward gaze (and Lawrence paints the human eye with astonishing clarity) seems to dare the viewer to contradict her assertion of bird/artist duality.

Steven Stone's pen-and-ink portrait of himself in the agonizing grip of migraine is a reminder that muses are not always benevolent. As a fellow migraine sufferer I found Stone's drawing eerily evocative--a howling mask of pain with distant echoes of Edvard Munch's self-portrait, The Scream.

Disguise Artists

THE TWO WORKS I lingered over longest have no human beings in them at all. Identity is elusive in Tobin Keller's Amerigo, a narrow, charcoal-blackened strip of paper, draped vertically on the wall. At the top, the luminous eye of a horse emerges from the inky darkness, superimposed over it the words "Shiko's Amerigo." In the center of the strip are affixed a few strands of horsehair. Everything about this black obelisk suggests a memento mori: the grave-like darkness that seems to have swallowed up the horse, the epitaph, the few tail hairs. It's a deceptively simple piece that resonates with mystery and the emotion of profound loss.

Ross Jones' stunning acrylic painting Spring Arcata is also imbued with mysterious overtones. The painting depicts a handful of seemingly uninhabited farmhouses with a poppy-strewn meadow in the foreground. A late-afternoon sky is either clearing from a recent storm or gathering force for a fresh onslaught; in the center of the sky is a single slash of blue. The artist has masked his identity; he could be lurking in the bright innocence of the orange poppies or the silent farmhouses, the dense forested hills in the middle distance or the unsettling submarine green of the sky. I stood for long minutes in front of this painting, seduced by its nuance and beauty.

All the artists in "Collective 2001" have dipped into the bottomless well of self and emerged with bold and witty acts of self-portrayal. The multitude of identities revealed in this visual odyssey--trickster and aristocrat, survivor and revolutionary--proves that all artists have two faces, and the lucky ones may have even more.


Collective 2001: A Face Odyssey runs through July 14, 12:30pm-4:30pm, Wednesday-Saturday, at Pajaro Valley Gallery, 37 Sudden St. (next door to the YMCA), Watsonville. (831.722.3062)

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From the June 20-27, 2001 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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