St. Paul painter Patricia Olson portrays St. Catherine University through the faces of its people.
By coincidence there are at least four portrait shows on view in the Twin Cities this month, ranging from contemporary "head studies" in paint, to traditional drawings, quirky photos and expressive sculptures that try to convey psychological insights but look, superficially, nothing like their subjects. The portrait proliferation is an apt reminder of the human touch that is the genesis of all art. However elegant or eccentric, high-tech or low-, noble or degraded, art is always conceived and fashioned by someone.
Portraits, especially self-portraits, are about slowing things down, really looking at one's self or another, considering what it means to open your eyes in the morning, to think, to speak, to breathe, to smile or not. Never just a record of a face or body, they are a trusting collaboration between artist and subject. Ultimately the artist has the upper hand, controlling everything from the medium to the light, color, mood and even the expression and attitude of the subject. And what does the subject get out of the exchange? The opportunity to be putty. Because ultimately it is the artist who decides whether the subject will be made a fool, or famous, for posterity.
That's abundantly evident in the most ambitious of the current shows, Patricia Olson's "The Catherine Portrait," up through April 3 at St. Catherine University in St. Paul. With 40 faces on 40 canvases, the show is smartly displayed and admirably focused on the university's faculty, staff and students. Olson, a longtime St. Kate's faculty member, spent more than two years depicting a cross section of campus personalities in an effort to capture the ethos of the place. Since educating women is the school's core mission, it's no surprise that 31 of the subjects are female.
Each portrait is a 16-inch-square "head study" based on a photograph. Olson credits the notion of "head studies" to her mentor, the late Jerry Rudquist, a consummate portraitist and Macalester College professor who claimed to be more interested in the shapes and contours of people's heads than in whatever psychological baggage their features might imply. Divorcing a subject's appearance from his or her personality is very modern, or post-modern. We know better than to assume we can judge the book by its cover, or to understand a person from their visage.
Still, confronting 40 sharp-eyed faces hung in a line around a gallery is both daunting and invigorating. Olson's subjects range from youthful Molly Davy, a vivacious art history student with a mischievous smile, to Sister Margery Smith, an emeritus professor and 1949 St. Kate grad whose stern expression and cropped gray hair bespeak a lifetime of experience. Chubby-cheeked Jack Flynn, an associate professor with squinty eyes and pursed lips, has flecks of turquoise in his otherwise reddish beard, an expressionist trick Olson adapted from Rudquist. Thin streaks of blue and orange highlight Olson's blond hair in her self-portrait while patches of cream and orchid swirl from the brush she presses into her furrowed cheek.
In the modern manner, Olson's portraits are likenesses without being illusionistic. With their repeated formats, lively colors, linear structure and tightly cropped designs, the paintings are so stylistically related that one subject, painter Carol Lee Chase, observed in the show's catalog that "what I find remarkable about Pat's project is that we all look alike!" Indeed. Like the 20th-century portraits of Andy Warhol and Alice Neel or the earlier portraits of John Singer Sargent, Rembrandt and myriad others, Olson's portraits are variations on a theme.
While all of Warhol's people look like colorized film stars, and Sargent's ooze aristocratic hauteur, Olson's subjects seem intensely, well, academic. A quizzical bunch, they all seem skeptical, preoccupied, a little stern, even a tad judgmental. Everyone is serious, sincere, thoughtful. No one is relaxed or playful, though Shawn Field, a custodial supervisor with an overgrown mustache, looks like the kind of fun, competent guy you'd want on your lifeboat. The intensity of the St. Kate 40 no doubt speaks to the school's educational mission, but it is also an extended portrait of an artist deeply engaged in describing the world through paint.
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"About Face: Portraits From the Minnesota Museum of American Art" spotlights 19th- and 20th-century portraits in sundry media by Paul Manship, Andy Warhol, Chuck Close, Edward Curtis, Gordon Parks and others, including Minnesota artists whose work is in the museum's collection or was borrowed to augment this show.
"Faces of the Dead" showcases photographs by Howard Christopherson of 19th-century Roman tomb portraits. (For more info, see box below.)
Ends May 7, free. Icebox Gallery, 1500 NE. Jackson St., Mpls. 612-788-1790 or www.iceboxminnesota.com.
"Inside Out: The Self-Portrait Show" features expressive self-portrait sculpture, drawings, photos and more by 26 contemporary Twin Cities artists.
Opening reception 6-9 p.m. March 12, free. Ends April 30. Hennes Art Co., 1607 Hennepin Av. S., Mpls. 612-436-2077 or www.hennesart.com