Talking heads

Chico State hosts show of varyingly effective self-portraits in Taylor Hall

PERSONALITY <br>Painted self-portraits like this one from Costa Vavagiakis are among the exceptional entries in the current Taylor Hall show.

Painted self-portraits like this one from Costa Vavagiakis are among the exceptional entries in the current Taylor Hall show.

photo by Tom Angel

When our ancestors first discovered that pulling one rock over another produced a line, they undoubtedly realized the line could make an image of themselves. Desert petroglyphs and ice-age cave paintings showed the centrality of human image and activity for the early artisans.

The University Art Gallery’s current installation, “Face to Face,” brings a fine focus to this primal artistic theme through the work of nine artists, a spread of national talent ranging from novice to masterful, from detachment and whimsy to dark deep questions of Self. Represented are: Ted Julian Arnold, Belinda Clouber, Jeffery Cote de Luna, Josie Donegan, Paul Green, Duncan Hannah, Elliot Ross, Richard Shelton and Costa Vavagiakis.

One of the pleasures of a group show is the variety, the something-for-everyone idea. In this case, the gallery gives a lot for everyone. For instance, my companion pointed out his favorite pieces, by Josie Donegan and Duncan Hannah, which may be the weakest elements of the show.

Donegan emulates the painting techniques of “Rembrandt and Velazquez.” Her work demonstrates skill yet seems apprentice-made even before reading that she earned her BFA in 1997.

“Azure III” depicts a young girl in white gypsy blouse, holding a violin on her lap. Donegan hasn’t yet discovered form beneath appearance; the body of the girl ceases to exist under the intricate folds of the blouse and skirt.

Directly across the room from Donegan are three works by Costa Vavagiakis whose “super-realized” portraits vie with photographs for detail. In these works, though, nothing detracts from the powerful creation of personality.

All three portraits—"Michael III,” “Bernie III” and “Maria V"—show the sitter from about waist up, unclothed, against a plain background. The posture of the sitters, the detail, the choice of lighting all work together to create an almost palpable impression of the personalities of the sitters. Especially enjoyable is “Maria V.” Perhaps around 40 years old, the model has a Mona Lisa smile, and the subtleties of her pose and facial expression make a viewer ready to hear her tell a Zen joke.

The notes on Eliot Ross tell the viewer a bit about the artist’s “unipolar affective disorder” and how his work springs out of it. A small self-portrait, done with graphite and pastel (1990), shows a well-crafted profile of a man with very short hair and a moustache and goatee. Seeing this work alone would not lead one to expect his “Self-portrait/Selbsthass” (1998) or “In My Father’s Hat” (1998). These two small self-portraits (about 8” by 10") linger like disturbing images from a half-remembered dream. Both works are dark and reticent and don’t easily give away the artist or his skills.

“Self-portrait/Selbsthass” is puzzling at first; a bald head, subtle blue in the eyes, a smudge of dull red at the lips. The face appears to have a small, squarish moustache. The shirt with its wide stripes stands out and suggests history. “Selbsthass” is German for “self-hate.” Learning this, the hinted meanings become clearer: the artist as victim and victimizer in one.

The whimsy of the show comes from Ted Julian Arnold’s three-dimensional slices of a wedding and Belinda Chlouber’s naïve-style paintings. Jeffery Cote de Luna writes that the “model becomes a familiar vehicle for significant mark making,” and the marks this artist makes are strong indeed.

Overall, this show is well worth a visit, or more. Bring your own chair so you can sit and appreciate and choose your own faves from the great choices.