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Guy Talk: Roberta Loach's acrylic on canvas is part of a mixed bag of 'Contemporary Portraits' at d.p. Fong Galleries.

Show Time

Two dozen artists mine the deep and the obvious of human identity in a surprisingly eclectic exhibition at d.p. Fong Galleries

By Christina Waters

MODERNIST, CONCEPTUAL and pomo ideologies hang out together in a show determined to announce the revival of the figurative aesthetic. Contemporary Portraits at d.p. Fong Galleries in San Jose uncovers its goal to portray the human spirit with some strong--and some lackluster--work.

Devoted to portraits in media ranging from photography and sculpture to painting and printmaking, the show cuts along political and stylistic axes as well. The brilliant work of Wayne Jiang offers refreshingly unforced avenues to multicultural awareness, while the insipid photo realism of George Rivera's pinched poseurs appears ripe for a Prada ad.

Lushly retro is a wall of black-and-white photographs of postwar Bay Area artists--Bob Arneson, Nathan Oliveira, Wayne Thiebaud, Joan Brown, Richard Diebenkorn--most taken in the early '80s by Kurt Edward Fishback. On the other hand, the paint appears barely dry on a series of kitsch curios manufactured by Elizabeth Williams.

Much of the work here is strong. Mythic energy masters a tendency to whimsy in Peter Schifrin's compelling ceramic busts. These fantasy pieces achieve lifelike dignity, yet each bursts forth with its own tiny idol, like familiars called by a shaman's song.

The most memorable works belong to the painters. The haunting modernist portraits by Sara Pringle--calm, confident and slightly disturbing--reference the scrutiny of a Lucien Freud. Pringle places each of her seven sitters in identical poses, indirectly lit so that the brushwork and color create the drama. Her portrait Ellen, its pinks and greens embracing in the poignant flesh of the neck, is the single best piece in the show.

In the same vein, the thick, coagulated paintwork of Ryan Reynolds' portraits practically sculpts its models, each lost in thought and yet unmistakably present. Another star is Jiang, whose eloquent political portraits are as wonderfully crafted as they are passionately felt. Jiang's exactingly painted panels display adventurous formats ranging from tiny, 2-inch-square miniatures--some as supple as Van Eyck's--to a compelling jungle 7 inches high and 3 feet wide. His omnivorous eye addresses a young blonde woman, black athletes and aging Asians tending verdant gardens. Jiang's close study of Wyeth is handsomely in evidence in a thoughtful study titled Breezeway.

Invoking Asian heritage are the ink and watercolor creations by Raymond Hu, whose vigorous black linework echoes classic calligraphy. In his series of vibrant animal portraits, the inventive color work is sheer sensuality.

THE HIGH CEILINGS of the gallery manage nicely to support such a potentially jarring juxtaposition of styles and media. In addition to the provocative ceramic fantasy busts by Schifrin are a few other disturbingly trite attempts at freestanding metal sculpture, best left packed in the family garage.

But the postmodernist soft-core by Ken Waterstreet needs to be singled out as exemplary of what might be in store for us with another Bush in the White House. Waterstreet, who perpetrates the sort of candy-apple nudes that might have illustrated homemade comix, seems not to know what metaphors to mix--and so he destroys hallowed artworks of the past in an effort to insist on something or other.

In the second-floor gallery annex, the show's curator appears to have grouped together some of the weaker pieces from the selected artists (again a sensitive piece by Sara Pringle is the exception). The examples shown here by Jiang lean more obviously toward illustration than fine art, and are noticeably the weaker for that loosening of vision.

Most of the work in this never-boring exhibition makes its statement unequivocally. The pieces are either quite strong and confident, or clearly amateurish. An exception is a large group scene by Dickson Schneider. The handling of paint is impressive; this is clearly an artist of promise. Yet a point to the work fails to materialize.

The point of George Rivera's work, on the other hand, is obvious with one look at the extravagant price tags on his underwhelming efforts. The good work is so strong that it cries out for a greater representation. It would have been terrific to feast on even more from Jiang, Hu, Pringle and Schneider. Or to see what Patricia Sherwood might have up her sleeve when she moved beyond commercial effects. It's a show to check out--bound to produce a reaction one way or another.

Contemporary Portraits: Revealing the Human Spirit shows through Oct. 28 at d.p. Fong Galleries, 383 S. First St., San Jose (408.298.8877).

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From the October 19-25, 2000 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 2000 Metro Publishing Inc. MetroActive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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