Jenny Dubnau cold-cocks you with her smashing Surprised Self-Portrait right off the bat.
The artist has rendered herself with an utter oddball naturalism in the oil-on-canvas painting. She suffers from bed head, and her neck appears flushed in the morning light, which glints off of her cheeks. Behind bleary, startled eyes, she recoils from the spectator.
Hers is one of the many attention-grabbing works in "In Your Face," an intriguing take on portraiture featuring the Bernice Steinbaum Gallery's stable of artists and a surprising mélange of media. The group show includes nearly 30 works, primarily portraits or engaging riffs on the human condition, doled out in dizzily contrasting styles.
The exhibit is well curated and organized in a way that prevents it from looking as if gallery stock has been trotted out for a summer fire sale — which, bottom line, it has. After all, the dog days are slow, business is business, and that's why group shows mushroom during this time of year.
Cynicism aside, Steinbaum has craftily infused the show with appeal via pieces by artists such as Pablo Tamayo, whose mechanical depictions of local collectors and museum honchos exude a techno-pointillist vibe.
Tamayo's laser-cut canvas portraits of Craig Robbins, Ella Fontanals-Cisneros, Mickey Wolfson, and Terence Riley, from the artist's The Art Crowd series, are a laugh-provoking marvel. They look like hole-punched mug shots that seem to dissolve into the air. These gray-tone "paintings" are all about appearances and how those appearances bleed through the surface.
Elizabeth Cerejido's Combing I (Sitting), a black-and-white Super 8 film transferred to digital video, tenderly captures the artist's aging mother in the simple act of grooming herself. As the woman sits in profile in front of a window, she combs and pins up her hair before putting on her glasses. The poignantly atmospheric short film evokes a sense of aging in solitude, making it among the most transfixing works in the show.
Another piece that mines themes of aging is Adrian Soca's nifty A Time to Sew. It consists of a wall clock, whose face he fashioned from cloth and thread. To drive the point home, the artist has stitched the phrase "sewn on senescence" beneath the timepiece, straight into the wall, leaving the needle and black thread dangling from the sentiment as the spool rests on the floor.
Next to it, Elsoca and Fabian's tantalizing Hitting the Wall depicts a gaggle of geese flying south for the winter. The birds are concocted from flies the artists have meticulously glued to the canvas. The work appears to have little relevance to the show, although a biographical strip of text on the wall explains that while in Cuba, the artists were deprived of materials and resorted to using crushed insects.
In the same vein, Edouard Duval-Carrié's etched, aluminum, resin, and collage pieces, depicting his familiar motifs of Haiti's spiritual mysteries, offer their share of retinal pleasures but also seem to fudge with the exhibition's premise.
Closer to home is Maria Brito's oil-on-wood self-portrait, Harvester. In the painting/sculpture hybrid, the artist gazes at the viewer through sullen eyes. As she lies against a thicket of thorny brambles, she covers herself with a rose-patterned cloth clenched in her fists. Above her head hovers a pair of disembodied male hands in the process off lopping of her tresses with shears, perhaps conveying a sense of psychic danger.
Two painters whose works stand out with wildly divergent approaches are Jill Cannady and Arnaldo Roche.
Cannady's intense Women of the Storm 1, 2, and 3 — watercolor, powdered graphite, and wax on postcard-size hardboard pieces — feature subjects with finely lined faces; dark, dramatic expressions; and heads that tilt energetically, resonating powerfully with their responses to the unexpected vagaries of life.
On the opposite end of the gallery, Roche's huge, toxic-hue, testosterone-dosed impasto canvases are fiercely impressionistic. His unsettling figures verge on the abstract, threatening to disappear into a wild jungle overgrowth.
Across from Roche, one of Luis Cruz Azaceta's acrylic-on-canvas pieces reflects the alienation, psychological fragmentation, and anxiety of urban life he has encountered as a Cuban exile living in the States. The painter's Homeless: Blind Man Can Collector shows a weather-beaten guy sporting a gray hoody as he juggles soda cans with a withered hand.
So far we have seen plenty of paintings, a video, flies on canvas, and even a patchwork clock. But the photo-based works might be among the most compelling, in a show where women artists easily outmuscle the men.
Deborah Willis's touching color digital print, Read My Back See My Face, captures the artist in a solemn moment of contemplation. It was snapped during the time the African-American artist was undergoing chemotherapy for breast cancer and on the same day she was informed she was a MacArthur Fellowship winner. The closeup of Willis raising a hand to her cheek with downcast eyes is an austere study in dignity.
Tatiana Parcero offers a scintillating exploration of the boundaries of the body through three sumptuous self-portraits made with a neck-craning 3-D effect. She has printed images on Plexiglas and laid them over photos of herself to create shadow boxes, suggesting an eerie feeling of déjà vu. Re-Invento #25 depicts the artist with her wrists bound in front of her as she gently brushes her fingertips against her lips. The doe-eyed brunet's body is overlaid with occult, Kabalistic symbols hinting at a profound inward journey and transmitting a sense of mystical fervor. In her other works, Parcero's nude figure appears tattooed with a Mayan codex or an antique map of the New World. Her cartography of anatomy serves as a metaphor for investigating the self.
Likewise, Maria Magdalena Campos-Pons turns to history as a means to explore identity. Her autobiographical work traces her roots from America, to her Cuban homeland, to her ancestors who were enslaved in Nigeria. In Bin Bin Lady the Harvest, a striking series of six large Polaroids grouped together to form a self-portrait, the nude artist appears veiled under a peek-through lattice-patterned fuchsia-color burka. As she holds fruit in her hands while she stands before an exotic flower, sharply defined lights and shadows accentuate the stark scene.
Although a few of the works on exhibit might not gel, Steinbaum succeeds in marshaling her forces to hit paydirt. If the old-school dealer moves her flagship brands out the door in the process, then, hey, for the artists it's all gravy.
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