'Portraits' at Shy Rabbit

'Kids With Guns,' by Sarah Comerford

by Jules Masterjohn

Portraiture is one of the most common genres within the visual arts. From the carved marble busts of Greek and Roman rulers and portraits of royalty like Marie Antoinette to Van Gogh’s rural peasants in “The Potato Eaters” and Dorothea Lange’s photograph of the Great Depression’s impoverished, portraits have depicted the powerful and the downtrodden. Throughout time, portraits have offered insight into the breadth of the human condition. The list of artists exploring portraiture is long, and the genre is rich, indeed.

The current exhibition, “Portraits,” on display at Shy Rabbit Contemporary Arts in Pagosa Springs, presents paintings, collages and sculptures that stay close to and wander far from conventional portraiture. While some of the images hover near the standard of representing a person’s physicality, all of the works plunge deep into the psyche of the sitter, the artist, or both. This is an exhibition of contemporary art, where the human face and body are used as vehicles to express the artists’ concerns about our world, through suggestion, symbolism and narrative.

Pagosa Springs artist Shaun Martin offers the boldest example of the narrative device. His titles, “She said the money would be here …” and “Well, I know how you love surprises,” tell his story. Without them, the tense relationship between the two individuals, whose close-cropped faces create uneasiness in the viewer, might not be comprehended. Martin’s two 5-by-5-foot acrylic-on-canvas portraits dominate the space.

Durango artist Maureen May also uses a close-up device in her series, “Sensing,” which depicts the doorways of human perception. Each of the six senses is embodies in a mixed-media piece that takes the form of a 3-by-3-inch oil painting set deep within a larger field of hand-embossed metal. One is compelled to look inside the small opening and must get very close to do so. A surprise awaits, as a colorful facial feature like the eye in "sight," is seen peeping out. In "Hearing," a painting of the outer ear can be identified. May offers an intimate viewing experience.

While Martin’s paintings are large and presented in their raw state as unstretched canvases, push-pinned to the wall, May’s pieces are small and highly finished. Martin’s story is told loud and clear, while May’s is quiet and implied. The work by these two artists is a pleasing pairing on the gallery wall, complimenting each other both conceptually and visually.

D. Michael Coffee’s ‘Naysayer’s Requiem’

As is the standard at Shy Rabbit, “Portraits” is well presented. Co-owners Denise and D. Michael Coffee take great care in hanging the art within their converted warehouse space. The exhibitions are consistently displayed with professionalism and the understanding that well-placed art enhances a viewer’s experience.

Upon entering the first of two galleries, one is welcomed by a display of duet works by father and daughter artists, Karl Isberg and Ivy King. Their project, “From the Photo,” presents their differing interpretations of five photographic portraits through Isberg’s paintings and King’s collages. The Coffees are the sub

Hanging in the same gallery is the work by Flagstaff, Ariz., artist Mike Frick. At first glance, his vibrantly colored oil paintings seem to be the most conventional in the show, yet his sitters directly engage the viewer with a vacuous stare. In “My Space,” Frick offers no clues as to the psychological state or the interior life of the sitter. His work is inspired by the empty stare on the faces of those who are watching television. He states, “That’s when you’re doing your absolute least … You sit there and you’re passive … you do nothing. I try to make people do as little as possible in my paintings …”

By contrast, D. Michael Coffee offers five computer-generated photo collages filled with personal iconography. Using symbolic imagery and the creative process as metaphor, Coffee depicts himself as a warrior who has emerged victorious from a personal battle. In “Naysayer’s Requiem,” he lays to rest questioning voices by representing them as human skulls. Rising from a graveyard of skulls is a portrait of Coffee wearing sunglasses and antlers on his head, visual metaphors for his battle regalia. Through the use of photo-editing software, he has dissolved the realistic photographic imagery into ghosts of color, line and texture. His technical process has been his battlefield, where he has called upon magic and talismans to dispel the threats from an unseen realm.

Perhaps the most powerful narrative work in the show is the large-scale oil painting, “Kids with Guns,” by Durango artist Sarah Comerford. Inspired by dance music about the Iraq War, her narrative includes two swimsuit clad children in an apocalyptic beach scene. The young girl has her arms outspread like a figure on a cross, holding an action figure toy in one hand. Like Coffee, Comerford places personal symbols within the scene, offering the viewer a personal yet universal reality. She writes, “To me it’s sort of stunning … enjoy the moment because everything is completely out of our control.” •

“Portraits” is on display through April 18 at Shy Rabbit Contemporary Arts, 333 Bastille Drive in Pagosa Springs. Gallery hours are Thursday - Sunday, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. or by appointment. 970-731-2766. www.shyrabbit.com.



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