In downtown Durham, portraits and landscapes

Mar. 13, 2014 @ 10:33 AM

“Face-to-Face: Human Observation, Expression and Interaction: Juried Exhibition,” Durham Art Guild, 120 Morris St., through May 10.

“John Dempsey: Between Landscape and Place,” Semans Gallery,
Durham Arts Council, 120 Morris St., through April 27.
“Eleanor Mills:  Five Mona Lisas, Four Enigmas and Juicy Surfaces,”
Through This Lens Gallery, 303 E. Chapel Hill St., Durham, through March 15.

For some societies to take one’s picture is to rob that person of the soul.  In this “Face-to-Face” juried competition it is not the soul the artists wish to steal, rather it is to reveal some hidden thoughts of the sitter. In fact, in the call there is the suggestion that to look in someone’s eyes can capture a candid moment which may open a window into another person’s world. 

Beverly McIver, North Carolina’s premier portrait painter, who has spent her professional career painting self-portraits and portraits of a challenged sister and a burdened mother, was the juror of this show and has picked 31 artists from a field of 66.  As with most portraits it is the objects surrounding the sitter that tell us about the person, although when the subject looks us in the eye we believe we are seeing way beneath the surface. The exhibition is a good mix of paintings and photographs; with only one sculpture, “Sanctity” by Peter A. Anderson, a bust of a woman whose head is covered with a blue cloth, the base is etched in gothic arches. 
The centerpiece of the show, probably by virtue of its size, is Emily Anderson’s “Happy Days,” a la Lichtenstein’s pop heroes and heroines. Unlike his cartoon-like style this is a carefully painted realistic close-up of a man and woman in bed; he sleeps while she lies wide awake and the text cloud above her head repeats “Happy Days” with musical notes over and over. Caroline Trippe’s “Phoenix” is a full-length portrait of a woman, barefoot, with messy hair, one arm sporting a gold bracelet, the other a tattoo.  The cross around her neck and the title may promise a new beginning. It is a question.
Jennifer Schmitt offers us a straight-on look at a large woman sleeping. Our view is from just above the woman’s body, onto her chest and then her majestic head with its mane of black hair. Her white skin is dappled with blues, pinks, and greens.  Steven Sorin’s “Drag Bingo” is about a beauty with a large hat, white lace pants suit, a huge red ribbon across his/her chest and over-the-top jewelry. Saba Barnard’s “Rebel” is a Muslim woman whose head is covered but wears a short skirt and black lace hose.  She stands against a patterned background displaying her shirt with the letters “Rebel” emblazoned across it.  In each case the artists tell us a great deal about the sitters, which make them more accessible.
The exhibit includes a varied group of portraits; there are Kimberly Wheaton’s two homeless men; Chris Ogden’s confrontation between two men in “Customer Service;”   Susan Jones’ Park Avenue lady sitting in Central Park with her three dogs;  and Warren Hicks’ funny “My Third Eye is a Bull’s-eye.” Here Hicks pins a Xeroxed photograph (possibly a self-portrait) with a dart to a homemade dartboard.
The images are all about people, who they are and what they do. The artists have not stolen souls but they have come close. McIver has chosen a good show.
Upstairs in the Semans Gallery are John Dempsey’s large landscapes. At first glance they appear to be roiling multi-colored spirals, about to go out of control. A closer look reveals snippets of scenes embedded in landscapes or in the case of “Glare #10-Sidewinder” some giant object, made of many parts with an elephant-type trunk fastened to one end. In his artist’s statement Dempsey talks about an environment composed of numbers of spaces, like factories, churches, historic sites and the landscape, and that we experience them sequentially over real time. For example, in “Glare #10,” among the circular strips are a library reading room, several chandeliers, a royal bed chamber with its canopied bed, a greenhouse super structure, boaters in one place and rushing water in another. Our world with its multiple stimuli does tend to make our brains whirl.  Dempsey has visualized in a unique and original way the dizzying effect our surroundings have on us. 
The artist lives and works in Flint, Mich., but visits Durham often because his daughter is here.                     
Just around the corner from the Arts Council Building at Through This Lens Gallery, Eleanor Mills shows us a series of portraits plus abstract landscapes presented on different surfaces. Her portraits are of particular interest because of the Art Guild show.  These five women, perhaps the artist’s friends, are framed in elaborate, if homemade, gold, baroque frames. Each title begins with “M’Lady.” As an example “M’Lady Elizabeth (with Jackson Lucille)” is a straight-forward portrait of a woman probably in her early 40s.  She is not beautiful in the sense of a model but has a wonderful face marked by life’s experiences. She holds a small dog which reminded me of Leonardo’s “Lady with Ermine” (1489-90), a painting of a lovely woman holding a small ermine in a loving embrace. 
According to gallery director Roylee Duvall, Powell is talking about presentation and how that changes the attitude of the spectator toward the subject. If the portrait is framed in elaborate gilt the sitter most certainly is important. Good art should be the basis for good conversation; these exhibitions, all in downtown Durham, are just that.

Blue Greenberg’s column appears each week in Entertainment and More. She can be reached at or by writing her in c/o The Herald-Sun, 2828 Pickett Road, Durham, NC 27705.