From ironic and irreverent to serious and sober, the Benton’s Face-Off: Confronting Portraiture exhibit packs a punch of perspective in just 15 photographs. Utilizing various techniques of portraiture, the featured artists’ photographs express different sentiments about their subjects. The exhibit ultimately makes a statement about the way in which a subject is presented and the way in which an audience perceives this subject. Face-Off prompts viewers to reckon with the truth that a portrait portrays as well as ideas about the construction and presentation of identity.
In “San Francisco, California” Tseng Kwong Chi photographs a man wearing a Chinese Zhongshan suit (also known as a Mao suit) in front of the Golden Gate Bridge. Though the photo may seem to capture a visiting dignitary touring a scenic site, it is simply the artist himself wearing mirrored sunglasses and a suit that is traditionally associated with the East. The artist got the idea for the photo after wearing his own Mao suit to a fancy restaurant and being mistaken for a foreign VIP. This series of photographs “East Meets West” plays with the notion that portraiture truthfully represents its subject.
The museum placard calls East Meets West “a playful commentary on expectations about cultural exchange in the wake of U.S. President Richard Nixon’s visit to China and the establishment, in 1979, of diplomatic relations between the two countries.”
In another subversive piece, Keun Young Park shreds a photograph of herself and then reassembles the thousands of little blue and purple shreds to recreate her likeness. Up close, the photograph may look like a blur of blue, but from farther away the profile of the artist appears.
According to a quote from the artist that was featured in the exhibit’s description, her work demonstrates the changeability of identity and “the tremor of unstable presence.”
Other artists incorporate existing portraits into a new artwork. Shimon Attie photographed projections of old portraits onto the space where they were originally taken, effectively bringing memories of the past into the present. His “Slide Projection of Noam S.” features a projected young child before a set of French doors in his apartment, looking back over his shoulder at something across the room.
In a similar manner, Binh Danh prints a portrait onto a nasturtium leaf in “Found Portrait #195.” Danh found this original anonymous portrait (and other portraits in this series) in archives and military records of the Cambodian Genocide. His work prompts viewers to take a look at history and reconsider those who might have been forgotten.
“These ghostly images transform the spectator into a witness, demonstrating the power of portraiture to recover those lost to history,” reads the museum placard.
Similarly, a photograph by artist Sylvia de Swaan features a hand holding the small, square identification pictures of two young girls in front of corroded tombstones in an overgrown cemetery. The photograph was taken during one of de Swaan’s pilgrimages to eastern Europe after the fall of communism. The artist sought to rediscover her homeland and reconstruct her identity in this series, as she was only an infant when her family was deported to a concentration camp in 1941. The two girls are actually the artist and her sister in their youth, and the cemetery is the Jewish Cemetery in Cluj, Romania.
Though each portraitist differs in his/her aims and methods, Face-Off showcases the diverse nature of portraiture and how a portrait can be and mean more than just a picture of someone standing in front of a camera.
Stephanie Santillo is a staff writer for The Daily Campus. She can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.