on September 29, 2012 by admin in National News, Comments (0)

National Gallery’s ‘Serial Portrait’ show reveals more than faces

There’s only one end, and it’s a certitude, of course. The Nixon series, presented with three missing photographs on the lowest row, projects death into the present, into the midst of life, reminding one of Roland Barthes’s observation: “Whether or not the subject is already dead, every photograph is this catastrophe.”

As you prepare to leave the exhibit, death returns in the form of an image that seems to be a giant reproduction of Robert Mapplethorpe’s last self-portrait, made a year before the photographer’s death from complications arising from AIDS in 1989.

Mapplethorpe is seen facing the viewer square on, holding a walking stick topped by a metal skull. It is an “in your face” image, death personified, made all the more disturbing by a small anomaly around the eyes. This is not, in fact, Robert Mapplethorpe, but one of a series of self-portraits by the British photographer Gillian Wearing, who photographed herself wearing a freakishly accurate Mapplethorpe mask. Wearing reproduced all the essential features of the iconic original, but you can still see a set of unfamiliar eyes staring out from the eyeholes of the silicone mask. She is, literally, inside of Mapplethorpe’s face.

By bringing death back in the form of Mapplethorpe’s provocative image, curator Sarah Kennel tightens the show’s meaning. The Mapplethorpe impersonation gives the viewer license to reflect on death and loss when looking at many of the photographs. And it connects what seem, frequently, to be two very different kinds of projects on display: photographs about time and photographs about categories and boundaries.

Alfred Stieglitz’s portraits of his lover and then wife, Georgia O’Keeffe, were both an exercise in form and a publicity project, fashioning O’Keeffe into his idea of the feminine sex-symbol artist. In a 1918 portrait, the young O’Keeffe is seen lounging in bed, pulling seductively at the strap of her lingerie. It’s fashionable to look for signs of resistance in O’Keeffe’s response to the lens: In 1930, photographed in front of one of her paintings, she is older, wiser, more self-possessed and less interested in being sexually open to the camera. But even in a 1919 print, “Georgia O’Keeffe — Hands and Thimble,” you sense something delicately truculent: The thimble, a tiny bit of silver on the middle finger of one hand, functions as a mask of sorts, like a tiny falconry hood pulled over one beautifully tapered digit.

Article source: http://www.washingtonpost.com/entertainment/museums/national-gallerys-serial-portrait-show-reveals-more-than-faces/2012/09/28/81c76ae0-074e-11e2-a10c-fa5a255a9258_story.html

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