A portrait show could seem like back to basics, but not in the hands of Maria Evans, artistic director at the Arts Council of Princeton, and 2015 honoree of the YWCA Tribute to Women Award. Evans has curated “The Bigger Picture at the Arts Council,” on view through Saturday, March 14, featuring four artists who focus on the human face — and what’s behind it — in a larger-than-life way.
“We hurry by people on the street, catch glimpses of faces in cars and trains, scoot by carts at the grocery store; we are everywhere, absorbed in our own orbit,” says Evans. “People, like traffic, have become something to get around. When I decided to curate a portrait exhibition I was suddenly faced head on with the individual. I was forced to slow down and focus on who this solitary person is, and why they matter.” And that is just what a portrait artist must do.
Kim Alsbrooks’ portraits are larger than life in impact, but diminutive in physical size because they are painted on beer and soda cans that have been flattened in the street. The Philadelphia-based artist has tried to flatten her own cans but finds those flattened by urban traffic work best for her “White Trash” series, depicting privileged, wealthy families or the politically elite.
Mary Dewitt’s portraits of incarcerated women bring them out from behind locked doors and make them visible again. Their stories are stenciled at the bottom of the painting, and viewers can scan the QR barcode to learn more about these individuals through video and audio.
Jim Doherty’s subjects, in finery evoking another era, are painted on reclaimed wood that gives them an added sense of history. He makes each brush stroke part of the composition.
Elise Dodeles works from small archival photographs and imbues them with personality and character in wall-high canvases. She has a preference for subjects who have been battered or bruised, such as boxers and sports figures. She builds up the surface of their faces with water-soluble oil paint, applied thickly, like sculpture.
Dodeles’ works serve as an entry to the exhibition.
The Lambertville-based artist lives in a stone house constructed within the last decade but with all the charm of the city’s Victorian-era buildings. Dodeles greets a visitor at the front door, holding two dogs at bay. In the front hall is a portrait of a sheep she painted more flatly, before she developed her thickly impastoed style, but like her current work, this sheep has a whole lot of personality.
The home is filled with elegantly framed artwork Dodeles has collected with her wife, Maryanne Zupeck, a retired software engineer whose mosaic paintings were recently featured in the Arts Council’s Sauce for the Goose sale.
En route to Dodeles’ second-floor studio, we pass a number of her earlier works. Classically trained — she studied at Carnegie Mellon, received her bachelor’s degree from NYU, and earned an MFA from New York Academy of Art — Dodeles has recently been experimenting to create her own unique style of painted collages. In “An Accident of Birth” she began with a black-and-white still from a Leni Riefenstahl film of a woman in a bathing suit and cap, re-inventing it in color, swimming over two women dressed in the hijab. “I wanted the paint to express the emotion, so I started to build up the painting to match the expressiveness,” she says. This painting, about “the West bombing the East with cultural norms,” was recently featured in New Hope Arts juried show.
This past fall Dodeles exhibited her boxer portraits at the George School in Newtown, Pennsylvania. While working in the Rare Books Department of Princeton University’s Firestone Library (Dodeles went back to school to earn a master’s degree in library and information science at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, taking most classes online), she came upon a black-and-white photo album from the Olympic Club in San Francisco. These were, essentially, mug shots.
“I love the faces from old movies and photos, they had so much character and expression,” she says, and referring to the boxers, “the pounding they took. Everything about life is written on their faces.”
A 2013 fellowship recipient from the New Jersey State Council on the Arts, Dodeles previously created a series of paintings of Negro League baseball players, shown at the Jerry Malloy Negro League Research Conference in Chicago, Kutztown University’s Rohrbach Library, and the Central Pennsylvania African American Museum in Reading, Pennsylvania.
Dodeles is often asked why she doesn’t paint people she knows. “Then I’d have to worry about their feelings or making them look good,” she says. “I’m seeking an expressiveness that doesn’t often flatter.” Taking a bold step in that direction, she has recently painted Zupeck and her mother, who moved from Florida to independent living in New Hope. Even with these familiar subjects, she prefers to work from photos and collects vintage photographs and albums. Her collection includes baby pictures of Zupeck as well as her own family albums, “but I’m more intrigued by strangers.”
“What I find so intriguing about painting from photographs is not just the surface but dissecting the face and putting it back together,” Dodeles continues. “Painting becomes a process of discovery. It’s not about a person but more about expression, and challenging myself with the knowledge of art making to create something beautiful as a conduit to expression.”
When others view her portraits, they often say, “Oh, that looks like someone I’ve seen around.”
“The subject comes to life from the physicality of the surface,” she says.
The Oceanside, New York, native was fortunate to have received encouragement from her father, a scrap metal importer/exporter, and her homemaker mother (her parents are now separated, and her father still lives in Florida). She was given private lessons, and when her father traveled he brought back books that taught how to draw like Michelangelo.
Dodeles left New York in 1995, where she had worked in advertising and as an illustrator, and moved to North Brunswick, where she met Zupeck. She had been teaching art in community centers and then found a job as a preservationist at Rider University, where she worked as an archivist until 2007 when grant funding ran out. “I always loved libraries,” she said of her decision to complete the library degree while working at Rider. She started in the Rare Books Department at Firestone full time but has recently transitioned to part time so she can spend more time on her painting.
“I always excelled and always knew I would go to art school. I was always interested in drawing street scenes and the common man.”
She was introduced to Russian-born American painter and printmaker Raphael Soyer, whose American Scene portraits on New York City streets and trains, waiting rooms, and taverns, conveyed the human condition. “We’re all connected in this human community,” Dodeles says. “You can see yourself in others. Mary Dewitt’s ex-prisoners are not outsiders — it’s about what we have in common, we’re all in this together.”
The Bigger Picture, Arts Council of Princeton’s Paul Robeson Center for the Arts, 102 Witherspoon Street, Princeton. Through Saturday, March 14. James Doherty and Elise Dodeles lead a gallery talk on Saturday, February 28, 1 p.m. Free. 609-924-8777 or www.artscouncilofprinceton.org.