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Face to Face 

There are portraits -- and then there are portraits. The best tell us something essential about the subject. The rest are just pictures. A really first-class portrait usually requires a great deal of technical skill. After all, a portrait of Julia Roberts could hardly be called successful if she ended up looking like Joan Rivers. But, of course, there's more to it than that. A lot more.

Every painting, in one way or another, reveals something about the painter. This applies to portraiture as well, although portrait artists must be very subtle about how much of their own persona is allowed to color a picture of someone else. The current exhibit of portraits by Alexander Stolin, a Ukrainian emigre who ended up in Madisonville in the early 1990s, offers insights into the processes of perception. Since Stolin is more accomplished than he is famous, and since at least some of his subjects are not so well known either, we can approach these images unburdened by preconceptions.

The Beauty Shop (Alice Keighly) is a 6-foot square painting of an elderly woman (said to be pushing 100) in a wheelchair under a hair dryer at a beauty salon. Now deceased, here she wears an almost expressionless look of resignation in the painting. Although rendered in a traditional realist style, the tone is modern, almost expressionistic, with a touch of Slavic irony. Yet its impact is not unlike those baroque still lifes in which a skull, or memento mori, appears among the fruit and flowers. Time stops for no one, yet life goes on -- for a while.

Most of the others are more traditional head-and-shoulders views. Portrait of Artist Douglas Bourgeois is an unmistakable likeness of the pop-surrealist maestro of St. Amant, La. What we see is a 50ish Louisiana man whose eyes and expression reflect the courtly Bourgeois' aura of sincerity and modesty. In fact, he looks almost saintly, as if his preoccupation with Roman Catholic icons had somehow rubbed off on him. Up close, you can almost see every pore and whisker, thanks to Stolin's meticulous brushwork. Portrait of Artist Jeffrey Cook reveals a figure whose gaze, while no less pensive, also suggests energy and alertness, a nimble capacity for observation. Another striking likeness, Cook showcases Stolin's deft rendering of the intangibles that bring a portrait to life rather than simply recording a visage.

The irony multiplies in Margaret Witherspoon, another prolific portrait artist, and in Portrait of the Artist's Wife, a very candid view of his very pregnant spouse caught unaware in the early morning light as she applies the first makeup of the day. It was obviously taken from a photograph, but with Stolin the effect is never photographic; his images distill something of his subjects' life essence filtered through the eye and hand of an unusually skillful, sensitive and increasingly accomplished painter.

Very different are Spencer Livingston's portraits at Space Gallery, a new venue on Magazine Street. For one thing, they are all of the same person, Channel 6 news reporter Helena Moreno. And unlike Stolin, who sometimes spends months on a single painting, Livingston takes a more brusquely spontaneous and expressionistic approach. Images such as Helena Moreno on Jefferson Highway, a view of the newswoman standing by some barricades as she reports the latest disaster, look like they were painted at the speed of a video clip. And in Helena Moreno and Charity we find her in front of Charity hospital doing much the same, only here a Sacred Heart with thorns and flames miraculously illuminates the space next to her.

Livingston says he sees a quality in Moreno that reminds him of charismatic religious figures, hence the symbolism. These images work best when taken as a whole, as an installation. Individually they suggest the slashing slapdash style of self-taught outsider artists, yet conceptually they deal with mass media and cultural deconstruction, a mixing of genres that might seem a tad confusing. But it may be par for the course for Livingston, a musician whose first local band, the Ballistics, was once banned from Tipitina's, and a longtime performance artist whose stage acts once featured live ammunition and the ingestion of signed Dali originals. So there's a common thread in all this: the art of the emergency -- the ineffable allure of 9/11.

click to enlarge Portrait of Artist Jeffrey Cook shows Alexander Stolin as the definition of a portrait artist; one who bring his subjects to life and not simply record a visage.
  • Portrait of Artist Jeffrey Cook shows Alexander Stolin as the definition of a portrait artist; one who bring his subjects to life and not simply record a visage.
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