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Portrait, Identity, Culture: Across Time, Space and Meaning

September 4, 2007 - March 4, 2008


Portrait, Identity, Culture : Across Time, Space and Meaning
opened on September 4 at the Tweed Museum of Art, University of Minnesota Duluth. Major American artists represented in this exhibit are John Singer Sargeant, James Mc Neill Whistler, Robert Mapplethorpe, Fritz Scholder, Eastman Johnson, William Wiley and Philip Evergood.

Featuring 90 works of art, this exhibit was put together around the theme of portraiture. Taken from the permanent collection were works on paper, paintings, sculpture, photographs and video and computer animation related pieces. Comprised of largely American works, this show presented wide ranging views of portrait genre.

A group of American Ojibwe paintings was significantly compelling. Fawn, a contemporary 44x30" Prismacolor pencil on paper drawing was a tour de force piece. Myriad brilliantly solid colored free-form shapes wove compactly to coalesce into a face with headdress and clouds massing above -- this was the larger theme. Evidence of elements important to this human image was seen in subdivisions of space -- shell, lightning, tree, wolf, spider, skull, fire, pattern, butterfly, to name some of them. These motifs fully ranged the background space, closely encroaching the figure. Artist, Frank Big Bear created the piece from 2002-04.

Traveling further back in time was Eastman Johnson's Ojibwe Women, 1856-57. Done on a visit to Duluth and the Lake Superior Basin, this precisely painted oil on canvas showed richly costumed figures. A teacher/mentor and student component (which recurs in this exhibit) leads the viewer to an adjacent ink and colored pigment piece on board. This figure portrait by Ojibwe artist Carl Gawboy entitled Eastman Johnson's Woman, 1972-95, had a shallowly incised surface and a string necklace relief, all lending a strong presence to its title.

Study of a Man: Self Portrait, oil on canvas, circa 1875, depicts a young John Singer Sargeant. Revealing casts of red and green color, with loosely painted brushstroke, the figure appears in three-quarter view with a frontal face. This fascinating look at the artist as a young man was done in Paris, where he joined the Carolus-Duran studio.

Ed Paschke's lithograph, Bondo, 2004 revealed a closely cropped face with looming, captivating eyes. In bright greens, yellows and oranges, the piece showed bold and geometric motifs reminiscent of the tattoos of popular culture. Paschke died during the time this edition was being printed at Landfall Press.

In Sue Johnson's Self Portrait as an Artist Naturalist, Loplop's Sister, after Max Ernst, 2000-01, we see again the teacher/mentor and student theme. The artist appears as one out of Ernst's bird character from his work entitled Une Semaine de Bonte. This oil on linen, 38x50," shows the artist with a human body and a chicken's head, amid cut fruit, an insect, a shell, a turtle and a bluejay -- a glimpse into the naturalist's habit of examining nature through observation. With florid brushwork and strong color contrasts the work appears to reference the style of Spanish Baroque still life painting.

A particularly striking piece was Basket Maker, 1959, by Patrick Des Jarlait, Ojibwe artist from Red Lake MN. This watercolor on paper showed a central figure making a birch bark basket. Done in geometric, curvilinear movements, the composition appeared to be vortexing. With a bold palette of red, brown, yellow, black, orange and blue, the painted surface appeared to be finely textured and bark like. An intriguing background gave glimpses of lake, architecture and flying cloth. This composition was "tightly woven" with all of its parts telling the story.


(above: Frank Big Bear, b. 1953, Fawn, 2002-04, Prismacolor pencil on paper, 44 x 30 inches. Alice Tweed Tuohy Purchase Fund)


(above: Patrick Des Jarlait (1921-73), Basket Maker, 1959, watercolor on paper, 17 1/2 x 22 1/2 inches. Sax Purchase Fund)


(above: Ed Paschke (1939-2004), Bondo, 2004, lithograph on paper, 22 x 30 inches. Gift of Dr. Robert and Frances Leff)


(above: Sue Johnson, b. 1957, Self Portrait as an Artist, Loplop's Sister, 2000-01, oil on linen, 38 x 50 inches. Sax Purchase Fund)

Editor's note: the above article, written by Eugene Avergon and Diana Avergon, is reprinted in Resource Library with permission of the authors and the Tweed Museum of Art. Diana Avergon says that the authors "put together from this exhibit of European and American paintings an article on several of the Native American artists and their works in this show. We have included paintings from the show by Eastman Johnson, who served as an unseen mentor, John Singer Sargeant, Sue Johnson and Ed Paschke."

On its website The Tweed Museum of Art says of the exhibit: "This exhibition assembles ninety artworks from the Tweed Museum of Art permanent collection around the theme of portraiture. Created between 1500 and 2007, these paintings, sculptures, photographs and works on paper chronicle significant changes in what portraiture has and does mean to us. Once primarily an indicator of status, religious and nationalistic identity, and a marker of historical events intended primarily to instruct and promote specific ideologies, portraits and images of self and others now ask us to consider a wide range of psychological, spiritual, and political information, including narratives of personal and collective experience."


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