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In his book on portraiture, Richard Brilliant argues that the genre’s endurance and resilience is a reflection of the power of the relationship between subject, artist and beholder that characterises it. Attempts to unravel a persona and adequately capture the essence of a sitter have been a constant preoccupation of the artist since antiquity, and ‘Beyond Likeness: Contemporary Portraits’ at the Lawrence Wilson Art Gallery, offers up some of the most recent efforts to do so, with an impressive range of over thirty painted, photographic, video and sculptural creations from across the globe.
Local Perth artist Frances Andrijich’s stunning photograph of a twenty year-old Heath Ledger stands out. It captures his significant charisma and magnetism, and thus prefigures his rise to fame, yet also, tragically, his untimely death, given the unbridled and explosive dynamism inferred in the work. Daniel Crooks’s Static No. 12 (seek stillness in movement), a stunning work which depicts a lone man doing Tai Chi in a courtyard, is another highlight. The man’s graceful and choreographed movements are slowed down, emphasising the subtleties of his rhythmic motion, as time itself becomes the work’s medium, challenging the traditional modes of portraiture. Suddenly the figure begins to replicate itself and is stretched across the screen. The display is filled by body parts, each showing a different stage of the man’s routine. Still images travel across the monitor, before they bleed into one another and come alive as video. This fragmentation of the act of Tai Chi blurs the distinction between the still and moving image, but rather than obscuring our understanding of the subject, the many images we are presented with, which gradually stretch into one that fills the screen, provide us with an intimate access to the figure despite the film’s length being a mere five minutes.
Arguably the two strongest works in the show deconstruct their subjects’ personas through, in one case, a playful undermining of a theatrical guise, and, in the other, through the revelation of a hidden fragility. Robert Wilson’s video portrait of Brad Pitt initially screams ‘Hollywood’, as the actor stands in the pouring rain, a pistol held by his side. An image fit for a movie poster, we seem to have caught him at the climax of a film, and the tension simply escalates as he slowly raises his arm and points the gun towards us. It seems to take an eternity, and we brace ourselves for the shot, before he pulls the trigger and a trickle of water squirts out… The character is unmasked, and we see Pitt in a completely new light.
In contrast to this playful deconstruction is Andy Warhol’s screen test of Edie Sedgwick. For its first few minutes, we see the Sedgwick we all recognise, as the beautiful socialite flirts with us and draws us in. Over the course of the four-minute film, however, this façade is torn down, and the fragile and vulnerable figure behind the good looks is slowly exposed. What was initially a confident and confronting gaze is replaced with one of timidity and fear. In this sense, the work has given life to her, freeing her from the generalisations that tend to dominate her representation, and we feel we at last see the ‘real’ Edie.
At times adopting fascinating forms and styles, the works in ‘Beyond Likeness’ reveal the eternal nature of our quest to gain a privileged and uninhibited access to the world of the subject through portraiture. While the possible ways of doing so are endless, this reinforces the timelessness of the preoccupation, and this show demonstrates the powerful responses that such attempts achieve through its clever and varied selection of works.
Robert Wilson, BRAD PITT Actor, 2004. Video still. Music by Michael Galasso, voice and text by Christopher Knowles. Photograph Pavel Antonov.
Daniel Crooks, Static No. 12 (seek stillness in movement), 2009-10. Video still. Image courtesy of the artist and Anna Schwartz Gallery. © The artist.