My current Facebook profile picture is of my shadow cast upon a patch of stony ground. But it had recently been a still from a play I was in, an action shot of my favorite hockey player and a crock-pot of hot dogs in brine in an office break room. Whether or not they sum to a representation of me is inconsequential; these thumbnail portraits effortlessly flick from one to the next. I know that I am something altogether different.
It is this knowledge—that we exist, regardless of, or even despite, the whirl of images around us—that undergirds the ambitious trio of portrait shows currently at UNC-Chapel Hill's Ackland Art Museum. Enduring Likeness, Big Shots: Andy Warhol Polaroids and Counterlives occupy only one gallery room each, but the show offers a substantial conceptual arc to unite them.
If you think you've seen the Warhol Polaroids before, you're probably right. A much larger version of the show finished its run at Duke's Nasher Museum of Art in February. But the Ackland situates Warhol's work differently, both by locating it between historical and contemporary portraiture, and in the way the photographs are hung on the walls.
The Polaroids are still presented in horizontal sets, but the larger black-and-white 35 mm photographs hang in asymmetrical, tumor-like clusters with their frames touching. Bianca Jagger is so tightly sandwiched between a Spanish buffet table and a dog on one side—with Steve Rubell and an unidentified picnicker on the other—that an overall image is implied by the cluster, as if seen through an insect's compound eye.
Jennie Carlisle, an Ackland intern and a graduate student in the art department at UNC, wanted to convey the camera's constant companionship with Warhol. She explains, "By closely clustering these diverse works together, I wanted to draw out their playful spontaneity and to emphasize their lively, cacophonous character. Another goal of this arrangement was to convey a sense of the sheer amount of photographs taken by Warhol during this time."
Warhol's photography, of course, accelerated to the point that a foray into cinema was inevitable. As part of this show, the Varsity theater, located just a few steps around the corner from the Ackland, will screen several films, including the first-ever North Carolina showing of Warhol's Chelsea Girls, on Nov. 18, and his eight-hour Empire on Dec. 4 with live musical accompaniment. Richard Cante, UNC associate professor of media and cultural studies, will lead talks before the films.
The Warhol work is a marked contrast to the Enduring Likeness room—really more of a corridor—that's intended to provide a history of portraiture leading into the media age. Expressionist portraits by Egon Schiele, Max Beckmann and Arshile Gorky provide an echo of a time when the artist's eye and hand were more important than the portrait's subject. But the space constraint of the gallery allows for so few older works that Enduring Likeness seems a bit of a contextual obligation, amplified by heavy-handed subtitles by the show's curators on individual works such as "The Artful Likeness" and "Character, Likeness and Propaganda."
If the Warhol room elaborates photography's conceptual overwhelming of the portrait, the Counterlives room deals with its implications for identity and reality, providing the most various and contemporary work in the three-headed show, as well as the most to think about. The room posits the most questions about portraiture as such: How is a portrait different from a picture? What social purposes do portraits serve? Can a person really be captured in an image?
Gary Lee Boas' 1977 shot of Jack Nicholson arriving at a party for Jimmy Carter with a beaming, starstruck woman following close behind shares a gallery corner with Jeff Whetstone's 2003 portrait "Brandon Smith, Turkey Hunter," in which the subject's camouflage ninja hood allows us to see only his eyes, transforming us into his prey.
Most spectacular are Nikki S. Lee's two ersatz portraits, which elaborate upon Cindy Sherman's costumed and made-up turn as Lucille Ball on the opposite wall. Lee constructs and appears in living portrait scenes that force a viewer into the same unresolvable internal battle between authenticity and stereotype that Sherman provoked in her groundbreaking Untitled Film Stills series.
Taken from her Hispanic and Ohio projects in the late 1990s, Lee's images are carefully composed self-portraits in the most downscale settings possible—done with a completely straight face, right down to the red time-and-date stamp in the corner. These ironic images erode the idea of a singular identity; they imply that identity is woven from many threads of social constructions. In the Ohio image, bleach-blonde Lee sits with an armed man beneath a rebel flag in a claustrophobic living room, before a bounty of chip bags and drink cans on crocheted cozies. In the Hispanic image, she appears seated in a dirt lot behind a tenement as one of two chongas (flamboyantly attired young Latinas), under congested clotheslines both festive and pathetic.
Ideally, the Ackland curatorial team might have transformed a fourth room or alcove into a portrait studio—complete with ready-made backdrops, a costume wardrobe and a valise full of makeup—so that we could doll ourselves up, pose and post new profile pics straight to our Facebook pages.
But we're all probably going to do that in the next few minutes anyway, aren't we?