Pretty on the Inside

'Only Human' presents new approaches to portraiture at the MMAA

If you had to pick the quintessential portrait, perhaps you'd chose the Mona Lisa, or the eerie painting of your great-grandfather that you recently inherited and stuffed in the attic, or James Joyce's Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, or, if you were a dude who attended my high school in near-rural Missouri and had a penchant for fires, jean jackets that smelled like a creek, and Camel non-filters, it'd likely be Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer. For most people, though, portraits are flings with perfection in which faulty humans are recast as glowing art forms.

At any rate, it's safe to say that, when thinking of portraiture, few minds leap to a dodecahedron the size of an Ikea entertainment center that's composed of four years' worth of discarded items like Kool cartons and Kleenex boxes. Or a photo of a recently vacated apartment in which all that's left to whisper clues about a recent inhabitant is an unmarked T&A calendar. Though it's only a brief glimpse into an already cleaned-up corner of the dweller's life, it raises a handful of questions: Is the calendar a display of post-pubescent virility or an admission of loneliness on the part of the owner? If the calendar was the only thing too worthless to pack, why'd he put it up in the first place? Are we sure it's a he?

The 30 or so locally created images and pieces among the Minnesota Museum of American Art's "Only Human: Exploring Contemporary Portraits" exhibit aren't all framed or painted, or even human images. Here, unconventional art forms, like a geometric trash diary, converge with conventional portrait imagery to convey stories of gender, obsession, and depression.

Artist David Hamlow's Collector/Collaborator Project Four, Archival Structure Three: Dodecahedron is a record of his personal consumption, the receipts and boxes of everything he used from 1994 to 1998. Each pentagon-shaped side is its own box, the delicate lid attached with rubber bands and plastic milk caps. It feels invasive to unfasten it and open it up, like you're peeling away layers of the artist, digging through his insides, and removing them and passing them among your curious peers to dissect. Only a sheet of plastic protects the artifacts, and you can see the dysfunction right through it.

Underneath one side of the box there's a receipt from a behavioral health center, and more for anti-depressants. And there are photos, too, like one of shoes and another of a floor fan. Are these images taken from the artist's apartment? Or are they portraits of loneliness conveyed through items that seem to have no place? Or both?

There's an underlying sadness in almost every piece, an earnestness and humanity that is most easily captured through a lens of connection and empathy. But perhaps one of the most disturbing pieces is by photographer Anthony Marchetti, who spent time as a turnkey painter at a Twin Cities apartment complex. Marchetti used the opportunity to photograph apartments and the items renters left behind. There's one filthy apartment that has one of those fuzzy orangutan puppets hanging from a ceiling fan, an empty tequila bottle sitting on the counter, and raw pasta noodles littering the floor alongside brown spots that could be feces, mud, or crayon marks. It's possible they're remainders from a recent going-away party that got out of hand, but the hairbrush forming an electrified nest of long, black hair on the kitchen counter tells a different story about chaos and abandonment.

"Only Human" is an ambitious exhibit where not every piece works as well as the others, since, to the curator's credit, it covers a wide range of emerging and established artists. That said, some of the best pieces are by local up-and-comer Peter B. Becker Nelson and well-known Minneapolis photographer Xavier Tavera, whose hulking photographs of Edina extreme fighters reveal every bump and bruise on their massive bodies and the combined fear and deadness in their eyes.

In Becker Nelson's video project, Nine Monologues, the artist lip-syncs over recordings of nine interviews he did with women ages 5 to 74 on the question of gender. He's able to embody all these women, to capture their mannerisms and facades, and make those things say as much about the interview subjects as the responses themselves. For another video project, Becker Nelson recorded three older brothers, all of whom are shirtless, staring into the camera, and talking about what they will someday become. As a viewer, you can't help but stare at the nakedness and vulnerability. And wanting to look at the blinking and graying men in the tiny video portraits makes you wonder: What does that say about me?

 
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