Weatherspoon Art Museum: The Penetrating Gaze
I’m trying to imagine a way to start this article without using the exhausted phrase “eyes are the windows to the soul,” and finding the task more and more difficult given the scope of this exhibition. But like most popular things, this phrase is popular for a reason, and the reason is this: human beings are obsessed with eyes. To make eye contact is to show the other that we are paying attention, so what better avenue for exploration in the world of visual art. Penetrating Gaze is collection of paintings, photographs, and prints that focus less on the physicality of the eye, but rather the romanticized transactions happening behind and in front of the eye, the immediate gratification of connecting with an illusion on a two dimensional surface. The exhibition is comprised of a handful of artists from different backgrounds and histories all exploring the seemingly endless capabilities of the human gaze and portraiture in relation to the artist, subject, and viewer alike.
Mirrors began to accelerate in production during the Renaissance period, and have since changed the capabilities of portraiture and self-portraiture in every artistic medium. Like Hans Holbein the Younger, Jan Van Eyck, and countless others preceding him, William Coffield Fields III depicts the literal mirror in his painting aptly titled, Girl before Mirror, to confuse and charge the simplicity of the figure’s posture and setting.
Dating back to 1769, Europeans have explored (and since appropriated) the traditions of New Zealand cultures, specifically, the Maori tribes and their unique ta moko (facial tattoos). The Maori use the ta moko as a physically painful right of passage into adulthood. I found the subject’s gaze in this painting particularly compelling because of the content and history surrounding the eyes. The subject’s identity is so defined because the culture imprints itself upon each individual’s skin, and yet we are left with no real indication as to who this person really is. We have no setting to ground the figure’s existence, only a blank white wall.
On the entirely opposite end of the spectrum, hangs an untitled painting by Judy Glantzman. Similar to the demonic splashing and twisting of Francis Bacon, Glantzman’s paintings offer a deconstructed abstraction of the traditional portrait. While the body of the figure is disfigured into a jumble of sweeping, gestural lines, the figure’s face remains relatively intact. The subject’s askew eyes and mouth dictate the faintest grin amongst the surrounding chaos.
While the diversity of the artists and respective artistic movements carried a lot of weight in regards to the ambitious focus of exhibiting the human gaze, the exhibition was predictably two-dimensional. The entire sculptural medium and all its prolific dedication to capturing the expressive nature of human beings was ultimately exempt. Regardless, the exhibit is one that should not be missed and will be active until June 16th. Plus you can take your picture next to an Andy Warhol print and all your friends will think you’re the coolest.