Un-Likeness

A most pallid presentation of portraits of artists by artists

By Robert MapplethorpeWhen Wolfgang Tillmans is "insisting on [a] casual means of display" at Cal State Long Beach's University Art Museum, that translates to: his photos are put up with Scotch tape. That might have seemed nice and humble to Tillmans, but it illustrates everything wrong with "Likeness: Portraits of Artists by Other Artists." It's that little chestnut you give to a new dumpee; if you don't love yourself, no one else will either. No ego? From an artist? Then why on earth would we care?

Not only does Tillmans install his photographs of his artist friends with visible Scotch tape, but the didactic texts don't tell you who the artists are either. There's a beautiful nude sitting at a word processor, and two guys wrapped up in a circus-like pretzel. John Waters is instantly recognizable, but the other eight? I haven't got a clue. The whole point of seeing artists' portraits of other artists is to bask vicariously in the social webs of entire highfalutin or wicked worlds, to enjoy the interwoven relationships of famous people to one another, like we do when reading of the vicious circle at the Royalton Hotel in the '40s or the six degrees of Wilmer Valderrama. Humble anonymity is most certainly not the point.

It's not as though the artists in "Likeness" could put identity second to their explosive new ideas, their formalism or their technique. Even unto 1994, Deborah Kass was painting Cindy Sherman as flat Warhol Marilyns, which had, by 1994, been done a little bit already. (She looks oddly like Liza Minnelli.) Anne Collier's Aura photographs aren't terribly well-executed, even if one does portray John Baldessari. (There's a dearth of West Coast artists here; "Likenesses" focuses mostly on the East, even though Don Bachardy, for one, has painted every West Coast painter to set foot in incestuous Venice over the past 30 years.) And probably more than half of the works here are so unarresting one might not even notice them.

The best works are photographic. Richard Kern's series of portraits of Scottish artist Lucy McKenzie includes Lucy in the Bathroom (Paris), a glowingly punk shot of homely Lucy in tennies and underpants and nothing else. She has lovely breasts you wouldn't notice if they were under a sweater, and she stretches and wipes her nose with the back of one hand. There's a small hole in her panties, and her thin body glimmers.

David Robbins' Talent from 1986 is a series of head shots of his friends—it's a one-trick '80s Night at the Improv pony, but at least it has names we care about. Jeff Koons is fresh-faced, and Cindy Sherman is so well-scrubbed she looks like she could have landed a guest role on Family Ties. Neil Winokur offers us Warhol, Mapplethorpe and Nan Goldin, hyper-detailed and unforgiving, their pores gaping and every blotch exposed, and where there are '80s East Coast photographers, there is Robert Mapplethorpe. He offers us Christopher Knowles—with a wispy mustache, his eyes slightly crossed as if he's inbred—and Louise Bourgeois, who in her portrait holds her statue Fillettes, which looks like a knobby cock. Sadly, since it's Mapplethorpe, there's no actual cock to be found.

"Likenesses" is a bland disappointment, filled mainly with uninspired works by New York names we don't care about. I've made a lot of fun of Newport Beach painter Bradford over the years, but he's painted a host of local artists, and done it well. My friend Skeith DeWine has done the same. Instead, the largest series in the exhibit is by Sean Landers, who gives pencil portraits of DeChirico, Duchamp, Magritte, Picabia, Braque . . . you get the idea. Rough, quick and heavily hatch-marked in the style of gay '90s cartooning—and concurrently flat and without life—they showcase only a lack of intimacy with the subjects that he never knew.

Why bother?

"LIKENESS: PORTRAITS OF ARTISTS BY OTHER ARTISTS" AT CAL STATE LONG BEACH'S UNIVERSITY ART MUSEUM, 1250 BELLFLOWER BLVD., LONG BEACH, (562) 985-5761. OPEN TUES.-WED. & FRI., NOON-5 P.M.; THURS., NOON-8 P.M.; SAT.-SUN., 11 A.M.-4 P.M. THROUGH OCT. 30. $4; MEMBERS/STUDENTS/FACULTY/STAFF, FREE.

 
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