I’ll Be Your Mirror


Jenny Dubnau: Head On
Aldrich Museum
Ridgefield, CT
Through June 5, 2011

There were those who once believed that Alberto Giacometti pissed away a flourishing career as a leading Surrealist sculptor for what some saw as the seemingly futile pursuit of trying to paint a nose convincingly affixed to a face. Because it was Giacometti, we trust his judgment and agree that it was a good idea after all. His project for portraiture, which he pursued for the next 30-odd years, was of vital importance. Similarly, Jenny Dubnau's exhibition at the Aldrich, of simple faces portrayed against a blank ground, shows how compelling that idea still is.

Dubnau has been dogged by a need similar to Giacometti, a need to portray an intimate coterie of friends and colleagues rendered through carefully wrought painting. She is searching, we have come to believe, for something in these pieces even less defined that the task Giacometti had with the nose. Artists once sought, through painting, a means to array our countenances, and those of others, so as to better bring the mystery of sight and recognition, to canvas. Vision is a bodily function; as Merleau-Ponty reminds us, "human beings have no direct, unmediated perception of their own faces. The ocular-realist self-portrait makes that natural condition problematic for art."

Vision, especially for an artist, bears often supernatural power. Bartholomew Rimbertinus explained, "An intervening object does not impede the vision of the blessed…Christ could see the face of his mother when she was prostrate on the ground...as if he were looking directly at her face. It is clear that the blessed can see the front of an object from the back, the face through the head."

It would not be until the 20th century when it fell to Picasso, and his Cubist portraits, to fully realize how deeply one could penetrate the psychology of the sitter through the act of painting. What Dubnau does is something of a psychological end-run around this problem. A two-step process that works from candid photographs, she allows in the full personality of her sitters: embarrassment, shyness, ebullience, etc. And she renders them through her hand with a touch of both equal parts dry and vibrant. In essence painting herself into the picture. The resultant portrait is a hybrid -- one part sitter, one part painter.

Let's digress for a moment and acknowledge that Dubnau has not sprung Venus-like from the loam. At first glance, her precedents, Susanna Coffey and Joan Semmel, are fairly obvious, at first glance. Yet Dubnau achieves something of note, if we trouble for a moment to parse it out. Coffey et al. were focused on bringing a Feminist slat to the portrait, reversing the male gaze, or deeper psychologically, playing at a feminine version of the artist as Narcissus (for what is painting but the act of embracing, by art, the surface of the Pool?) Dubnau, like Picasso, is working a different angle -- the superimposition of her ego onto that of her sitters.

This is her achievement. While it is their faces that dance, mug-shot like, from canvas to canvas, it is Dubnau that leads. We come to feel that they are both subject and object of her attentions, and we ultimately get equal measure of engagement from both. Dubnau may be hiding behind them, her willing victims, but she still illuminates them. Gently limning the doors of their faces, the lamps of their mouths. - Bradley Rubenstein

Mr. Rubenstein is a painter, story teller, and smart culture aficionado.