Sunday, October 11, 2015

Social Commentary through the Lens of Portraiture

I just finished my second class on contemporary art and our final assignment was to curate a three piece mini-exhibition with artwork of our own choosing.  It was suggested that we pick from a local museum and, not surprisingly, I selected art I'd seen at the Katonah Museum of Art.  I decided to showcase pieces that addressed social commentary through portraiture.  

Here's my submission:
Artists have long called attention to social issues and/or injustices through their art.  The artwork collected here will enable viewers investigate how artists have used portraiture to highlight concerns and to critique societal "norms".  Creating portraits of those who might be suffering facilitates a more personal connection between the art and the viewer.  The artist has given a face to the problem and potentially makes it harder for the viewer to avoid the dialogue.

1. Portraits of Archive Pictures, 2011 is one of a series of works created by Anne-Karin Furunes.  Using images from the 1910s-20s originally stored in an archive in Uppsala, Sweden, the artist re-creates the faces of children who were categorized simply by their faith, ethnicity, and/or political beliefs.  There were no names, simply labels.  Furunes focuses closely on the faces to help form a more intimate connection with the viewer.  The larger-than-life size of the piece (88.25" x 63") demands that it be viewed; Furunes doesn't want the idea of the piece -- that people can be marginally labelled and then forgotten in a catalogue --  in any way overlooked.   

2. I am Its secret, 1993 was created by Shirin Neshat, an Iranian woman born in Iran in 1975 who left Iran to come to American and finish her education.  After receiving her MA and MFA from Berkeley, she returned to Iran and was shocked by impact of the Islamic Revolution and the effects on women.  This portrait (she sits as the subject) is one of several in a series called "Women of Allah" calling to light the "revolution and the concept of 'martyrdom'".  Farsi poems written by Iranian women embellish the photograph.  By formatting the poem as a red target on the portrait's monochromatic face, we can't help but create an immediate connections to war, racial profiling, and Middle Eastern political unrest.

3. Little Richard, Harlem, is a black and white photograph taken by Gordon Parks as part of his photograph essay detailing the lives of an impoverished Harlem family.  This image of Little Richard, the youngest of ten children (eight of whom were living at home) was taken 1967.   According to the boy's mother, Bessie, he was so hungry she "couldn't stop Little Richard from eating plaster.  His lips stay cracked and swollen."  Published by Life magazine in 1968, this photo, along with 25 others, helped elucidate the American public of the plight of the poor and those impacted by racial prejudice.  

We then had to answer specific questions about our selections and thought-process.  Here's my reflection:

1. My personal interest lies in having a dialogue when viewing art.  Social commentary as an overall theme seemed to have almost limitless opportunity for discussion because of the various belief systems of viewers.  I want to learn from other people's points of views.  Respectful dialogue with differing opinions is how we best move forward. One of the essential questions of this collection for the viewer is how does portraiture amplify and/or impact the dialogue of the artwork within the context of social commentary? 

2. I selected my artwork from a collection of 65 pieces gathered at the Katonah Museum of Art for their exhibition Eye to I, 3000 Years of Portraits in 2013.  These pieces stayed with me. I suspect they lingered in my psyche because they are black and white images about complex issues and histories, concerns that are far from being black-and-white. There's a starkness to each portrait.  They're also very focused on the faces of the individuals, and that framing choice makes for a powerful statement.  

3.  As I researched my options, some artworks certainly seemed better fits for the "exhibition" than others; however, that's mostly due to taste, my age, and personal interests and biases.  This shouldn't be surprising, though.  Social commentary is a very personal subject.  How we reflect on history, our times, and social issues will influence the art we choose to share.

4.  I believe that students from grade 6 through adult would benefit from looking at the theme of social commentary through the lens of portraiture.  

Have you ever "collected" artwork in your mind to create your own exhibition?

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