From classical busts of emperors and Renaissance paintings by van Eyck, Holbein and da Vinci, to Rembrandt’s Baroque portraiture, portraits were a significant element of art’s earliest history.
Yet, thanks to modernists like van Gogh, Cezanne and Whistler, painting one’s likeness continued to be a telling picture of not only individual personalities, but of art and the times.
The history of portraiture is also integral to Pennsylvania-bred artist Christina Vogel, who has made it the center of her work.
“I have always loved portraiture in art history; how one era can be so formal and how it leads to the next, it’s all so curious,” said the University of Nebraska-Omaha art professor.
Vogel’s show at the Birdhouse Collectible, Snapshots and Other Works, is testimony to her greatest inspirations - Edouard Vuillard, Lucian Freud, Alice Neel and Jim Dine - with her personal touch, examining how portraiture is perceived.
The royal Profile with Ornament, a large, rich piece of deep purples and reds, typifies the early 20th century French painter and print-maker Vuillard with the velvet-esque patterned wall-paper background, formal upright pose, and silent stare.
In fact, all of her portraits, where the face is in view, are intentionally not smiling, said Vogel, who photographs her subjects before painting.
“I am most interested in my subjects when they are not flashing a smile, when I perceive them to be their most natural,” said Vogel, “When choosing the photographs for this work, I searched for a moment, an expression or a gesture that connects me to the person in the photograph - that I recognize as being of the subject.”
Much like British portrait painter Lucian Freud, Vogel’s personal connection is found in each of her works, as each of the subjects is a friend or family member. Yet, by placing them in obscured positions, she complicates the familiarity of a viewer-subject connection.
In the tiny Nathaniel and Heather portraits, only the back of the head is shown; in Brandon and Untitled only shoes and calves are shown, but still, personalities are captured, much in the way 20th century American portrait painter Alice Neel.
Brandon’s red Chuck Taylor’s and rolled up jeans in the corner of the piece exemplify informality and comfort. Untitled's (gouache on paper) white heels and printed dress hem embody lovability and charm. The back of Nathaniel and Heather’s heads can personify whomever the viewer might perceive.
“Many people find it easier to connect to the back-of-the-head portraits,” said Vogel, “where they might recognize one of their own friends with similar features.”
Vogel enjoys hearing viewers insert their stories in her work. Like Jim Dine, Vogel also explores portraiture through objects.
Handbag is a giant dramatic charcoal on paper devoted to just that - a purse of hers. A gold skirt from her closet is elegantly painted in Event. Several personal objects - a tool, books, a plant, a bone and a photograph - are expressively illustrated in charcoal in Still Life (with Family Iconography). Though the objects seem dissimilar, her composition and style makes the combination seem effortless and natural.
Since each piece is so personal to Vogel, one might wonder if she gets emotional over a sale; especially, for example, her favorite dual-portrait of her husband, Double Brandon.
“I certainly get attached to some works over others, but I'm always excited when someone likes my work enough to buy a piece. It's a wonderful feeling and I'm happy to share the work.”
In fact, she stepped aside to let Birdhouse curator Rebecca Herskovitz hang them however she saw fit; the result was pleasant, albeit not how Vogel would have done. Herskovitz said she arranged the work “to facilitate the viewer's engagement with each portrait individually as well as the understanding of how the work is woven around a common concept or narrative.”
“Christina's work is incredibly striking both for its technical skill as well as the emotive quality of each of the pieces. Her newest work feels especially intimate and personal,” wrote the curator and artist. “I have long been inspired by Christina's paintings, and so I am thrilled to have had the opportunity to work collaboratively with Christina and Jessica [McKay] while curating the show. “
Vogel will continue to explore the viewer-subject relation through still life, patterns and large figure paintings, she said, as she will be exhibiting at RNG Gallery this fall. Also upcoming, a portrait of her husband and brother will be featured in Man as Object: Reversing the Gaze, a juried show at SOMArts in November.
For now, viewers can be introduced to the multi-faceted, Massachusetts College of Art MFA graduate, Development Manager for Bemis Center for Contemporary Arts, at Birdhouse. The show spans her career and media through charcoal, oil and printmaking. Her skill is influenced by the history of portraiture, and through the passion and quality of her own artist’s eye.
Snapshots and Other Works continues through September 3 at Birdhouse Collectible at 1111 N. 13th St., Suite 123. For more information visit birdhousecollectible.com.