MORTAL THINGS: PORTRAITS
LOOK BACK AND FORTH
At Tufts University Art Gallery, Aidekman Arts Center, 40 Talbot Ave., Medford, through Dec. 4.
MEDFORD — What do we want from portraits? Good ones offer human connection, a view into the soul of a man or a woman. This has been true for centuries, although before the advent of photography there was also a hunger to know what powerful people actually looked like.
“Mortal Things: Portraits Look Back and Forth’’ at the Tufts University Art Gallery traces the evolution of portraiture since 1860, just at the start of photography’s democratization of portraits. Curated by Amy Ingrid Schlegel, who recently stepped down as director of galleries and collections, with help from independent curator Rachel Arauz, the show celebrates the gallery’s 25th anniversary.
It comes during a big shift that portends an expansion of visual art and artists at Tufts. Over the summer, the stewardship of the School of the Museum of Fine Arts, long a partner of the university, was officially transferred to Tufts from the MFA. There are plans to implement a search for a new director of the gallery, who will also oversee exhibitions at SMFA (now, officially, SMFA at Tufts), work with the MFA, and develop an outreach program at Tufts.
“Mortal Things’’ already reaps the benefits of the change; it spotlights SMFA alumni and faculty works alongside art from local collections and Tufts’s permanent collection.
Schlegel and Arauz break down the last 150 or so years of portraiture into three categories: the “Invisible Gaze,’’ the “Acknowledged Gaze,’’ and the “Subjective Gaze.’’ First, important people sat to be commemorated, then the camera liberated artists to depict ordinary folk who sometimes looked right into the lens; finally, artists used the concept and format of portraiture to make larger points or foil expectations.
This focus on the changing face of portraits, while a useful conceptual and historical frame, falls short in the face of the visceral power of recognizing the truth and pain of what it is to be human — what portraits have done best at least as far back as Rembrandt.
Look at “Ginny in Striped Shirt,’’ painter Alice Neel’s terrifically sour depiction of her daughter-in-law. The young woman looks so world-weary, so exhaustedly defiant, I took her to be an angry teenager. Then South African photographer Juhan Kuus’s “Untitled (Down and Out III Man, Johannesburg, 1975)’’ depicts a scrawny older black man, his eyes bloodshot, with a direct, penetrating stare that calls us to account.
The oldest work in the show is a marble bust of John Brown, made by Edward Brackett, from a cast he took of the abolitionist in jail after his arrest at Harpers Ferry. With his stern brow, noble cheekbones, and resplendent beard and hair, Brown hardly appears defeated. Indeed, he’s daunting. Can anyone have been so chiseled in the flesh? Or did Brackett play up his features, heroicizing him?
Also in the first section, Dorothy Norman’s small photo of Alfred Steiglitz, her mentor and lover, reveals the photographer and art dealer in a new light — less brooding artist, more man of the world. It’s a studio portrait, shot straight on, the subject formal in his coat and hat. He’s gruff yet tender; his posing makes him somehow vulnerable.
Next to such commanding art, other pieces early in the show fall flat. John Singer Sargent’s “Dr. Morton Prince,’’ depicting a Tufts Medical School professor of diseases of the nervous system, is a dimmer work from an artist known for subjects lit from within, yet it’s more accomplished than some of its companions, such as Emily B. White’s stiff “Portrait of Mrs. Mary A. Richardson.’’
A few of the pieces in the last section of “Mortal Things’’ subvert portraiture entirely to make a conceptual point. Nari Ward’s “Canned Smiles’’ features cans labeled “Jamaican Smiles’’ and “Black Smiles.’’ Ward riffs on a 1961 Piero Manzoni piece, cans with labels saying they contained the artist’s feces — a provocation that skewered the art market for elevating the value of crap.
Ward’s version cleverly pulls race into the conversation. His point about the dominant culture’s knee-jerk packaging (that is, objectification) of people of color is a good one. But this is no portrait. It’s conceptual art that only distantly refers to portraiture, and in this show it feels like a cheat.
Nearby, María Magdalena Campos-Pons’s “Flag Year 13. Color Code Venice,’’ a nine-panel Polaroid composition, addresses contemporary portraiture with more breadth, as a self-portrait in character. It nods to the Afro-Cuban artist’s Chinese ancestry, as she dons elaborate robes and the white face of Chinese theater. The piece invites us into a reverie of self and ancestors.
Only the second section of “Mortal Things’’ urgently lives up to the exhibition’s pointed title. Photos by Kuus, Walker Evans, Elliott Erwitt, and Arthur Rothstein lead us directly into the inner lives of black South Africans during apartheid, and scrappy dockworkers, soot-covered miners, and more.
Such photos have none of the posturing of the heroes and the moneyed in the first section, and none of the evasive intellectual hijinks that show up in the final section. They depict men and women frankly — ordinary people struggling through life. They’re people with stories to tell, and we want to listen.
MORTAL THINGS: PORTRAITS LOOK BACK AND FORTH
At Tufts University Art Gallery, Aidekman Arts Center, 40 Talbot Ave., Medford, through Dec. 4. 617-627-3518, artgallery.tufts.edu
Cate McQuaid can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @cmcq.