Review: South Carolina State Museum’s ‘Face to Face’ Explores Portraiture in Its Many Forms | art review
When most of us hear the word “portrait”, we probably envision a composition painted with the likeness of a particular individual. The “Face to Face” exhibition at the South Carolina State Museum’s Lipscomb Gallery features many such artistic offerings – offerings that not only meet our expectations, but also expand our understanding of the genre.
Consider, for example, an anonymous work titled “The Daughters of William Gregg” painted in Aiken around 1850. In this double portrait, Rosa supports her sister Mary as the latter reaches out for a floral bouquet.
Indeed, the two daughters, the daughters of the founder of the Graniteville factory, the first successful textile manufacturing center in our state, would seem to inhabit a land where flowers bloom perpetually, as the glimpsed garden landscape indicates. through a columned window and the cut-out bouquets that surround the two figures.
What adds poignancy to this portrayal of family intimacy is the fact that what appears to be the older sister is actually the younger. Mary died at the age of three, so Rosa is communing with her deceased brother, whose missing shoe symbolizes her leaving this physical plane.
Thus, a work that could appear as a simple representation of two young girls actually has a narrative content. Portraits can tell stories, and they can do so much more.
The aim of the exhibition is to expand our definition of portraiture by assembling from the museum’s own collection works that reflect an unexpected range of content and approach.
In the current exhibition are Nigerian-American Adebunmi Gbadebo’s ‘Blues People’, mixed-media ‘portraits’ made of sprayed human hair, cotton and rice paper. Lacking any physical resemblance to his enslaved ancestors who worked on two Lowcountry plantations grouped together as “True Blue”, the artist resorts to associative materials, including agricultural products like cotton, rice and the indigo once cultivated in these ancestral spaces, to create tangible objects. links to previously unrecorded lives.
Associative portraiture is also evident in Peter Lenzo’s “Virgin Mary Gun Altar” (1993), based on medieval portable altars the artist saw in Europe.
Arranged on the wall in a steeple-like configuration, Lenzo’s 10 hinged boxes feature two devotional objects – ceramic figurines and painted images of the Virgin Mary paired with toy guns.
Such coupling makes a visual reference to America’s schizophrenic public identity – our collective claim to be world peacemakers while at the same time being burdened by an ingrained gun culture.
Another impressive piece that offers a cultural portrait of sorts is the “Catawba Indian Head Jar” by late Lexington resident Sara Ayers.
Possibly the largest piece of Catawba pottery made in modern times, this earthenware vessel features two effigy heads as handles and a host of broadly circular surface marks made with a stick before firing in the pit.
Perhaps part of the oldest continuous pottery tradition east of the Mississippi, this impressive example of Catawba pottery art is representative of both a still vibrant Native American culture and the creativity of a particular individual in a long line of artistic precursors.
One of the most impressive unique works in the current exhibition can be found just outside the entrance to the Lipscomb Gallery.
Tyrone Geter’s monumental “Justice is Blind” features masterful charcoal renderings on sections of shredded and torn paper. The overall image incorporates an assortment of African American characters above which hovers an angel clearly puzzled by the predicament expressed in the hand-printed text: “justice never saw what was happening to me”.
The various figures are never explicitly identified in this imposing work, but their dilemma is clearly and persuasively communicated by their closed postures and solemn faces. It’s a stunning visual denunciation of the continuing inequities in America’s justice system.
Allow me to add one last example.
Acclaimed watercolourist and driving force behind the creation of the South Carolina State Museum, Guy Lipscomb is represented in the current exhibition by a whimsical self-portrait from 1990, which references the itinerant life he led at that time.
Framed by two trouser legs is a suitcase adorned with a humanoid similar to Salvador Dalí, a fusional configuration of head and arms without feet and therefore without the ability to take root in any particular place. It’s the embodiment of a life lived on the road and out of a suitcase.
In this last major exhibition at the national museum, visitors thus find themselves “face to face” with a wide range of portraits, both literal and associative. In these times when we face an ongoing health crisis as well as lingering social and political divisions, this exposure forces us to confront our need for human connections.
We are asked to face the faces of others.