Eye of the Beholder: Humanity and artifice square off in a safe portraiture show at NCMA and a controversial one at Meredith College | Visual Art | Indy Week
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Eye of the Beholder: Humanity and artifice square off in a safe portraiture show at NCMA and a controversial one at Meredith College 

“Lexi, Lindenhurst, New York” from Ilona Szwarc’s American Girls show at Meredith College

Courtesy Ilona Szwarc / Institute

“Lexi, Lindenhurst, New York” from Ilona Szwarc’s American Girls show at Meredith College

In a way, pictures have only two subjects: us and the world around us. If the rectangle is horizontal, then it's a landscape. If it's vertical, then it's a portrait.

Although the scales of their productions couldn't be more different, two exhibits in Raleigh recapitulate portraiture. The North Carolina Museum of Art offers Small Treasures: Rembrandt, Vermeer, Hals, and Their Contemporaries (through Jan. 4; $6–$12, free for members), a major show of 66 paintings by 17th-century Dutch and Flemish masters curated by NCMA's Dennis P. Weller.

Meanwhile, at Meredith College, American Girls: Photographs by Ilona Szwarc (through Nov. 16) comprises just 10 images hung unobtrusively around the rotunda of historic Johnson Hall—an administrative building, not a gallery space.

Another difference is that one of these shows, firmly planted in a cultural safe zone, is designed to soothe. The other is so discomforting that it might rock you back on your heels.

click to enlarge Johannes Vermeer's "Girl with the Red Hat" at NCMA - COURTESY NCMA
  • Courtesy NCMA
  • Johannes Vermeer's "Girl with the Red Hat" at NCMA

Nearly every work in Small Treasures is a portrait, painstakingly executed on wood panel, copper and canvas surfaces as small as a playing card or as relatively large as a sheet of notebook paper. Usually, you survey a painting from a comfortable distance and then lean in to see its details, but these are so small that they're all details. You can't share a viewing with another person. Some of the portraits make you feel like you're looking into an apartment through the peephole in the door.

The two Vermeers in the show are that personal and intimate. They're both of young women, seated, their heads turned to return your gaze. "Young Woman Seated at a Virginal" (circa 1670–72) manages a wan smile, like a self-conscious middle-schooler tired of posing at the keyboard. Vermeer devotes the most detail to the bow in her hair and the open music book before her. Her eyes, however, are flat disks, like a shark's.

Vermeer's "Girl with the Red Hat" (circa 1665–66), the masterwork of the pair, is worth the ticket price on its own. Its vibrant young subject seems to have been spontaneously interrupted while doing something engrossing. Her mouth is open as if in an inhalation of mild surprise, and her eyes are bright and alive under the shadow of her hat. Her lips, earrings and clothing catch that same dramatic light, painted in absolute white. If Diane Arbus had been a Dutch master, she would have given us this pull-up-a-chair-and-stare painting.

The two Rembrandts in the show, painted 15 years apart, give a miniature lesson on his stylistic changes. His philosophical "Bearded Old Man" (circa 1630) is the precise apparition of a contemplative face emerging from vague darkness, while "A Portrait of a Rabbi" (circa 1645) unites the holy man's face in profile with his pious posture and garb in looser, more expressive brushstrokes, left visible in a way the younger Rembrandt never dared to do.

While a fair number of the portraits in Small Treasures are of old people in ruffs posed at slight angles—commissions for the entertaining rooms of the wealthy—many others anticipate the liveliness of the snapshot, such as Frans Hals' kinetic "Singing Girl" and "Boy with a Violin," or shed their commercial purposes entirely, such as Gerrit Dou's low-lit "A Peasant Woman in a Stone Niche Holding a Candle" and his infinitesimally exquisite "Self-Portrait." Dou is this show's prime nominee for "master you've never heard of."

This was an era of wealth, which created a demand for portraiture to display that wealth, which then produced a higher-end demand for the technical mastery this show collects. But what is the value of portraiture now, in our era of the ubiquitous high-resolution camera; of awkwardfamilyphotos.com and selfies?

click to enlarge "Kayla, Boston, Massachusetts" from Ilona Szwarc's American Girls - COURTESY ILONA SZWARC/INSTITUTE
  • Courtesy Ilona Szwarc/INSTITUTE
  • "Kayla, Boston, Massachusetts" from Ilona Szwarc's American Girls

Ilona Szwarc finds some new territory for portraiture in her Meredith College show of 10 photographs of pre-adolescent girls with their replicant American Girl dolls.

Originally, American Girls were 18-inch-tall representations of the 8- to 11-year-old narrators in an accompanying work of historical fiction.

In 1995, however, Pleasant Company expanded the line so that the dolls could be customized by mixing and matching facial features, skin tone, eye color and hair color, length and style. Pleasant also sold human-girl-sized clothing along with the dolls. Now, instead of projecting themselves onto hardy pioneer and Civil Rights Movement-era girls from American history, children could have a doll replica of themselves, and dress exactly the same.

Yes, it's creepy. These dolls land in what psychologists call the "uncanny valley"—a place where the curve that graphs our reaction to simulated human features plummets from the peak of cartoonish pleasure into a trough of revulsion and fear. Szwarc plays off of this discomfort by posing the girls like dolls. None are smiling, and many appear almost synthetic.

Szwarc's pictures have no affect. Not all of the dolls are replicas of the girls, but most are. Sisters Maya and Lela are on a bed, framed by its arched headboard, with their doll twins identically dressed in their laps. A star hangs from the ceiling and windows let in afternoon sun from either side. The staged symmetry combines with the girls' expressionlessness to make it awkward—like, hallway-twins-from-The-Shining awkward.

Other poses deploy this discomfort within gender role stereotypes. Leah Joi is a housewife in a pink terrycloth bathrobe, staring blankly out of her bay window onto a suburban street, holding her doll as if it were the obligation trapping her there. Kayla is the too-young bride, standing in an Edvard Munch-like pose in a white dress beneath a Victorian wedding portrait, cradling her doll with a dispassionate looseness, her fingers strangely over its eyes.

Standing in a bikini with a jutted-out hip and an "oh, puh-lease" expression while holding a pajama-clad doll, Desiree is at once the most sexualized and the most expressive girl. In the background is a wall painting of a tea party where a girl Desiree's age approaches a mother from behind. With complex sexual and maternal messages, it's the only ambiguous image in the show. American Girls could have used more of its subjects' personality in this way.

click to enlarge Rembrandt's "A Portrait of a Rabbi" at NCMA - COURTESY NCMA
  • Courtesy NCMA
  • Rembrandt's "A Portrait of a Rabbi" at NCMA

Unfortunately, Szwarc is largely unable to critique gender roles and the sexualization of children without also embodying them. Where Desiree's defiant vamp shows a real child both expressing and parodying a pinup, the passive poses of Kayla and Leah Joi force the children into the stereotypes Szwarc assigns them. She objectifies these girls in order to make a statement about their objectification, which isn't so much a failure as an ethical trap.

Of course, viewers will have a wide range of reactions to this charged territory, which is why you should go out of your way to see this show. But ultimately, Szwarc's didactic poses and affectless subjects emphasize the self-referential nature of her images to the point that their artifice overcomes their potential for transformative meaning. The artist might want to give us the multitudinous humanity of the "Girl with the Red Hat," but we get something more like the ruffed aristocrats instead.

This article appeared in print with the headline "Uncanny valley of dolls"

Tags:

  • Small Treasures is currently on view at NCMA; American Girls is at Meredith College

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