An Ancient Impulse

Twenty-seven-thousand years ago, a prehistoric artist found a face-shaped rocky outcropping in a cave and drew horizontal lines on it to indicate eyes and mouth, adding an angular line for a nose. This drawing in the Vilhonneur grotto in western France is thought to be the world's oldest known portrait. Millennia later, portraits are still a source of fascination for artists. "do I know you" at Inman Gallery offers some contemporary takes on this ancient impulse. The sprawling 30-artist group show, curated by gallery director Patrick Reynolds, owner Kerry Inman and Art Lies editor Kurt Mueller, fills Inman Gallery and continues in the gallery's project space at the opposite end of the Isabella Court building.

The 21st-century idea of a portrait is pretty broad, and in artist Jason Salavon's case, it involves using data. Salavon didn't know that his Gmail account had tracked all of his web searches — three years' worth. When he discovered the previously unknown Google feature, he realized it was a record of his thoughts and interests. He decided to channel the information into a self-portrait. In Spigot (Babbling Self-portrait) (2010) a grid of multicolored squares scrolls past in a wall-projected video. Each square contains a search term and a date; the color is generated by an average of the page colors of the sites that came up in the search. The piece is conceptually interesting, but the greatest appeal no doubt lies in the voyeuristic aspects of the project.

I didn't see anything too revealing or salacious (or even interesting) during my brief viewing, but according to Reynolds, Salavon said there were definitely some searches that made for uncomfortable viewing with his girlfriend. From the excerpt I saw, you could tell he was looking to buy a used Audi A3, referring to the periodic table and seeking out server manufacturer "SGI." He sussed out "NBA trade rumors" and a French restaurant in Hyde Park. I don't know if he edited this stuff, but it comes across as kinda geeky and boring — is this the same guy who once made a photo combining 76 images of fellatio? Here, a search of the name of John Edwards's mistress is the only slight deviation.

Salavon is a veteran of these kinds of "amalgam" projects. In the past, he's combined years' worth of Playboy centerfolds into a single image, as well as home photos from realtor Web sites in a particular city. The resulting blurry images are visual averages in which only the most salient characteristics remain discernable — large, hazy breasts from '90s playmates and hazy, single-story ranch-style houses fronted by green lawns in the Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex. (A "meta-portrait" that incorporates all of Rembrandt's portraits is on view in the project space.) While the work on view, Spigot, is successful, it seems a little clunkier and not as elegant as some of his other projects.

The Internet is documenting millions of people in myriad ways, and we are sharing more of ourselves than ever before, for good and ill. Social media, meanwhile, has become a kind of digital "found object" for 21st-­century artists. Guthrie Lonergan's MySpace Intro Playlist (2006) is a collection of "introduction" videos culled from various MySpace pages. In them, the subjects turn a camera around to introduce themselves to page visitors. The guys try to act tough and cool — oblivious to the fact that their mothers' floral wall decor is framing their heads. Painfully young girls put on lipstick, trying to look older, and guilelessly invite one and all to contact them. Watching these young people reach out for friendship and love is both amusing and poignant.

There are many great, more conventional portraits. Jim Torok's small, goofy painting Pink Mouth Clown (2009) is a quickly scribbled wonder that would have probably amused early man as well. With dashed-off green x's for eyes and a scrawled red oval for a mouth, the features are as minimally indicated as those of the portrait in the Vilhonneur grotto, but Torok's work deals in lurid colors and contemporary comic shorthand.

Marjorie Schwarz's Untitled (Rob 1-09) (2009) is a brushy, ominous image of a kid in a brightly striped shirt set against a dark ground. His blurry face has a lavender tinge and a dark shadow over one eye; he looks either beat up or undead. Seth Alverson (who has a great show next door to Inman at Art Palace) contributes a painting of a balding, elderly man in a shirt and tie, dozing in a chair. Alverson is an edgy, hyperreal painter. The way he renders flesh is riveting, but there is something really fingernails-on-chalkboard disturbing about it. The skin of his subjects seems like a cross between corpse epidermis and vinyl; imagining what it feels like is enough to make you shudder.

Painstaking in its flatness, Francesca Fuchs's painting Bill (2002) is an image of a man in a plaid shirt standing against excessively floral wallpaper. Every detail has been precisely taped off and painted. The crisp execution tempered with slightly faded-looking colors creates an unexpected sense of nostalgia.

Heyd Fontenot has some really nice drawings, sensitive renderings of people's faces. I like them much better than the artist's big-head-on-little-body figure drawings. Beth Secor contributes one of her amazing, obsessively embroidered portraits. In her Irish American Woman as Depicted by Alfred Hitchcock Presents (2010), thousands of densely built up, fine strands of thread render a woman's quizzical face.

Amy Blakemore's Someone's Living Room (2010) is a shot of a cluttered interior filled with stacked cardboard boxes and jam-packed plastic containers. You scrutinize the image for clues. Are they moving, or are they hoarding? Todd Hido's Untitled #3680 (2005) is a more traditionally revealing portrait. A young woman wearing only panties leans against the wall at the far corner of a bed, staring at the camera, a rumpled sea of white sheets between her and the photographer. In other series, Hido has shot interiors of foreclosed homes and suburban tract houses at night. He brings the same thoughtful melancholy to buildings as to this anonymous portrait.

The show is packed with interesting work, amazingly varied takes on the idea of the portrait. The only thing missing is some cave art.

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Kelly Klaasmeyer
Contact: Kelly Klaasmeyer