About Face: Portraits and Other Pictures

About Face

© 2005, The Robert
McLaughlin Gallery

The public image of the visual artist, like that of the radio host, is an elusive one. More often than not we are more familiar with an artist's body of work, his or her "voice" in the artworld, than with the artist's physical appearance.   This is the paradox of the artist as image-maker.   About Face confronts this discrepancy by presenting portraits of artists alongside examples of their work.   This exhibition culls from the Gallery's permanent collection and offers the finest examples of Canadian pictures and portraiture.

The selection process for this exhibition followed a simple program.   First came the portraits.   A search for self-portraits yielded over a dozen images in the Gallery's holdings.   Other portraits of artists followed.   Next in the curatorial process was the selection of a fine representative work of the portrayed artist's oeuvre to accompany the portrait and/or the self-portrait.   At times, the choice of one narrowed-down piece was obvious.   This exhibition afforded the opportunity for some favourite "gems" such as Joyce Wieland's Artist on Fire and Lawren Harris's Houses on Chesnut Street to surface from the vault depths.   Showcased also are underrepresented works, pieces never before exhibited or recent acquisitions, such as June Clarke Greenberg's William Kurelek coupled with that artist's controversial painting The Doctor's Dilemma; and Gordon Webber's sensitively sketched Isabel McLaughlin paired with Miss McLaughlin's All Aboard.

In the course of selection, some interesting, often serendipitous relationships formed.   For instance, in 1934, Will Ogilvie pictured Pegi Nicol MacLeod dockside at the Massey's Durham House.   The painting is warm-hued, laid-back depiction of the artist basking in the August heat.1   In contrast; MacLeod's self-portrait is set in her Ottawa studio during the winter months.   The third work in this grouping is a turbid street scene painted from MacLeod's New York studio.   A triadic relationship between the works extends our biographic knowledge of Pegi Nichol MacLeod: the artist is observed, the artist observes herself and her surroundings.   Our understanding of Charles Goldhamer is fleshed out in a similar manner.   The Gallery holds three portraits of the Canadian war artist; a self-portrait, Arthur Lismer's rendering of his colleague and an anonymous sketch.   Each description interprets its subject according to the main formats and conventions of portraiture.   The anonymous pencil-drawn profile of Goldhamer, Lismer's three-quarter view and the artist's en face painting all explore the volumes, contours and structure of the subject's face.

This exhibition revolves around a fulcrum-this is the image of the artist.   But in what ways do the self-portraits differ from those completed by their fellow artists?  As a transcriptive act, self-portraiture requires an optical device, the simplest of which is a reflective surface.   Two of the self-portraits in this exhibition reveal the mechanics, the act of portrait-making.   Pegi Nicol MacLeod's Portrait for a Cold Studio and the Gallery's newly acquired portrait of Bobs Cogill Haworth picture the artists working with their left hands.   The mirror transforms the right-handed artist into a "lefty" and vice-versa.   Also, the single mirror used by the artist imports a confrontational stare of frozen concentration.   The ground, whether it is a canvas or paper, acts as a cipher for the mirror.   Fixed are the artist's pupils in a soul-searching, self-reflective gaze.   In writing on this sub-genre, Manuel Gasser notes: "Looking at artists' self-portraits is like consorting with eminent people-and it enables us to enjoy the sort of intimacy an artist allows only to his [or her] closest friends."2   Joyce Wieland's Artist on Fire seems to do just this.   Wieland reveals the symbolism of a fantastical waking dream.   The artist confides in us her passions and fears.

What portraits done by other artists lack in intensity, they make up for in versatility.   Displayed in the exhibition are studio portraits of Ray Mead, Hortense Gordon, Frederick Varley, Rae Johnson and Doris McCarthy.   All are formally posed, eliciting the artist's gaze.   The artist, however, is not always a passive sitter, but a participant in candid moments.   Isabel McLaughlin sketched Audrey Taylor rowing and Prudence Heward painting, John S.   Gordon is shown reading by candlelight, Fred Housser and Lawren Harris study art books and Pegi Nichol MacLeod relaxes dockside.

As a commemorational art-form, portraiture is charged with anticipation for both the sitter and the portraitist.   At times there can be an underlying expectation to satisfy a sitter's likeness.   Judgment is at hand, just on the other side of the easel.   The famed American painter John Singer Sargent waggishly commented on this dynamic tension: "Every time I paint a portrait, I loose a friend." By all accounts, no friendships were put in peril by any of the pictures in this exhibition.   A great majority of the works are relaxed, whimsical, even experimental in their execution.   Instead of the pressure to slavishly reproduce a literal likeness, there seems to be a tacit and sympathetic understanding between likeminded colleagues, the artist-portraitist and the artist-sitter.   Consider the loose bravado with which Gordon Rayner painted a fellow Ontario College of Art instructor, Graham Coughtry.   In the early 1960's, Robert Langstadt printed a raw, expressionist double-portrait with Anne Kahane, his artist wife.   Gordon Webber's characterized his good friend, Isabel McLaughlin, with a few economical strokes of charcoal.

The material means of referencing the human figure and, specifically, the identity of the artist, has expanded dramatically in the twentieth century.   So far, the works we've discussed employ traditional media such as drawing and painting.   The proliferation of photography in the latter half of the nineteenth century challenged the primacy of manual modes of depiction.   Roald Nasgaard applies this debate to the subject at hand: "Portraiture was a genre that sometime in the nineteenth century, we anticipated, would largely be consigned to the camera.   It dealt best with realistic representation while painting took on new tasks, speaking of what could not be shown or spoken."3   That which was "anticipated" was not fully realized, at least in terms of the Gallery's collections policy.   Indeed, the drawn and painted approaches to portraiture in this exhibition far outnumber photographic works.   The lens-based pieces available in the collection, however, infer an efficacy in imaging the artist.

Barbara Astman, Linda Ward Selbie, Blake Fitzpatrick and Carl Beam have all turned the camera on themselves.   The camera, when used as self-referencing tool, occupies an interstitial space.   The camera stands in for the mirror, but it also indexes its subject-matter similar to a scrupulous portraitist.   Both Selbie's and Astman's photo-works conjure deeply personal episodes.   These self-portraits are perhaps the most emotionally charged depictions in the show.   They elicit the vulnerability and earnestness of an autobiographical past.   Commenting on her 1980 image, Selbie writes: "Although I was never physically abused ... I painted myself as if I had been beaten as a way of expressing emotional abuse."4  In contrast, Blake Fitzpatrick's self-portrait is perhaps the most understated in the show.   Set in a biomechanics lab with skeletons, the scene has the potential for Hamletian overtones.   Instead the artist shows himself at the margins of the picture plane.

In this exhibition we find an array of material investigations into the nature of (self-) identity of Canada's cultural producers.   Of all representational forms, portraiture elicits the power of empathy, activating our curiosity and understanding of another person.   These are windows through which we glimpse lives lived.   The corresponding works displayed next to the self-portraits and portraits gives a greater appreciation for Canadian artists, past and present.   It is interesting to consider these associated works in context with the portraits.   As viewers of these portraits we confront the same eyes that processed the visual art that is displayed next to each artist's face.

Olexander Wlasenko
Exhibition Curator


1 Joan Murray, Daffodils in Winter: The Life and Letters of Pegi Nicol MacLeod, 1904-1949 (Moonbeam: Penumbra Press, 1984), p. 33.

2 Manuel Gasser, Self Portraits. Trans. By Angus Malcolm (London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1963), p. 7.

3 Roald Nasgaard, “The Portrait and the Facelift”, http://www.kwag.on.ca/user_files/images/roald_nasgaard_essay.pdf

4 Linda Ward Selbie letter to The Robert McLaughlin Gallery, November 22, 1991.


Exhibition at The Robert McLaughlin Gallery, Oshawa, Ontario, Canada
Exhibition Dates: July 15 - September 11 2005
ISBN: 0-921500-59-9