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February 27 - March 6, 1998

[Art Reviews]

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Mirror, mirror

Self-portraits to reflect on at the Brush

by Leon Nigrosh

SELF-aMUSEd II: THE ARTIST AS OBSERVER AND OBSERVED At the Brush Art Gallery, 256 Market Street, Lowell, through March 22.

[Bertman] Artists have made portraits of themselves for centuries, probably from the dawn of humanity but definitely since the invention of the glass mirror in the 15th century. Prior to the advent of mirrors, which reflect with crystal clarity, one could only guess at the intricacies of one's visage -- but artists such as Dürer, Da Vinci, and Michaelangelo showed us that self-portraits could create a masterfully heroic image or capture reality, warts and all.

What is the driving force behind this continuing fascination with self-portraiture? Is it primarily a matter of convenience, because the artist as model is ready at a moment's notice and is willing to sit for as long as necessary? Or is it simply an issue of ego?

In more recent times an additional ingredient has been added to the mix. Many contemporary artists have realized that there is much more to a person than just an individualized physiognomy, that by discovering one's psychological persona a major portion of one's "self" is revealed.

The 17 artists represented in the current exhibit at Lowell's Brush Art Gallery are attempting to go beyond a simple figurative representation of their facades. By relying on their total being as a primary source of inspiration, and using a variety of mediums, they take the viewer into an alluring world of humanity.

Boston architect Richard Bertman has endeavored to incorporate many of the current principles of self-portraiture in his Emerging Self-Portrait. Not only is the actual wooden sculpture quite revealing but so are his musings. He discusses the personal challenge of physically carving the wood, the issues of nudity in current society, his own modesty, and his attempt to give the viewer some indication of the vitality of the act of carving.

His final product is a life-sized representation (complete with real eyeglasses) of an average male slowly being released from within a large block of wood, in much the same manner as Rodin did in stone. The matter-of-fact quality of the figure becomes more profound because it is still in the process of being revealed. The fact that the image is not Adonis, or in some lascivious pose, offers an honesty that is non-threatening and easy to appreciate.

Bertman is saying, "Here I am,'' and we can readily translate this into, "Here are we all.''

Paul Stopforth also works fully in the round, presenting us with five small gestural figures elevated on steel rods. These featureless little guys point at the ground, bend backward, yell through cupped hands, or point straight at us. These characters each evoke an immediate mental, and even physical, response -- extending the idea of self-portrait of the artist to encompass a self-portrait of the viewer as well. There is an almost instant feeling of communication, we know exactly what each figure is doing, for we have done the same thing ourselves.

Florida artist Jerry Uelsmann generally focuses his camera on elements of nature or humans other than himself, so it is a rare treat to see five self-portraits, drawn from more than 30 years of work, by the quintessential master of photographic manipulation. In his 1976 Self-Portrait as Artist and Model, Uelsmann uses darkroom sleight-of-hand to create an enjoyable image of himself and a nude female engaging in both artistic occupations, simultaneously in the filmic positive and negative. His Notre Dame Self-Portrait is outstanding because his technical wizardry is seamless. We see the artist with tripod and camera perched on a library balcony, staring out at us, surrounded by brilliant clouds, crackling marble busts, and mysterious flying birds -- and we are left to wonder just who took the picture, and how?

The eeriest and most arresting self-portraits were created by former Worcesterite Harriet Casdin-Silver. A pioneer in developing artistic holograms for more than 25 years, Casdin-Silver has posed herself nude as a corpse in two 20"X24" holographic negatives. Mounted side by side on sheet steel, the full-color images are so three-dimensionally realistic that it seems we are peering into two crypts cut into the wall just for this occasion. As you pass by these "openings" more of the figure is revealed deep into the looming darkness. Through these images, Casdin-Silver raises questions about mortality, or as she puts it, "Same old stuff: Death and Life; Life and Death.'' If you've never seen an actual hologram (or even if you have), you must see these.

All of the artists in this exhibit present original works that not only hold our interest but serve to broaden the definition of just what constitutes a self-portrait.

The Brush Art Gallery is open Wednesday through Sunday from noon to 4 p.m. Call (978) 459-7819.


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