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This article by Nicole Plett was prepared for the May 15, 2002
edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.
Transformative & Complex Portraits
As a youngster, Rachel Bliss says she drew all the
time. And when she enrolled as a scholarship student at the
Academy of Fine Arts in 1985, she brought her drawings along with
"I arrived at the academy with sketchbooks full of drawings,"
says Bliss, " — portraits of people I liked, portraits from
photographs, portraits of my heroes, and imaginary portraits."
Heads and faces had always held a special appeal to her, a fact she
is tempted to attribute to growing up under the watchful gaze of her
parents’ collection of American Indian and African masks. "For
me, it’s something intuitive and primal to make portraits," says
the artist who also observes: "I am committed to making art that
has integrity and is powerfully beautiful."
Morpeth Gallery in Hopewell is hosting a solo show by Bliss titled
"Portraits" that opened May 11 and runs to June 8. The artist
will give a talk on her work at the gallery on Saturday, May 18, at
The word "portrait" has nowhere near the muscle to
Bliss’s extensive collection of paintings on view here. While it’s
true that most works here comprise a pair of limpid eyes, a nose,
and a mouth of some sort, these elements are only the point of
for the artist who captures her subject’s "portrait" in all
its complexity — often the one lurking beneath the veneer of
A 20-year resident of Philadelphia — mostly in gritty North Philly
— Bliss paints with an intensity that is almost frightening. Her
energetic compositions feel like one of those city excavation sites
symptomatic of a crumbling infrastructure. Her commanding figures
emerge from surfaces that are painted, drawn, scraped, grimed, and
dug. From this grounding in a layered environment we meet fantastical
figures, some of whom fall into recognizable categories — be it
monster or clown. Faces, it is true, are often portrayed with almost
classical clarity. Yet be prepared for the portrait head of a young
girl worn on a sheep’s body that is diagramed for butchering.
Raised in a family of working artists and designers, Bliss says she
sees her art making, "not as a luxury but a necessity." The
mother of three children under 12, Bliss has worked as a counselor
to victims of sexual assault and used her art as a political tool
to empower city residents. In making portraits of family, friends,
and acquaintances, she wants to document a society in all its
complexity. "It is important that my sitters have a voice,"
she says. "I focus on the face because I think it best reveals
the subject’s inner life."
Born in 1962, Bliss grew up in Rochester, New York, in a large family
where, she says, "everyone drew." Her father and mother met
as students at the Philadelphia Museum School, and moved to Rochester
to join his brother in the graphic design firm, Studio Five Graphics.
The firm became quite successful, with no particular distinction made
between high art and commercial art. Both parents continue to paint
today, and all four of their children — Rachel and three brothers
— work in the arts, one primarily in education.
Bliss came to Philadelphia when her youngest brother and uncle’s
Harry Bliss, was a student at the University of the Arts. (He has
since found significant success as a New Yorker cover artist, a
and children’s book illustrator.) Her subsequent choice of a classical
education at the Pennsylvania Academy has proved rewarding. She
her "great" instructors Arthur DeCosta and Bruce Samuelson
for leading her through the maze to find her own voice.
"I went there to study, I went there thinking I was going to get
something I didn’t have," says Bliss, "And I cried a lot."
One day she fretted to her teacher: "I can’t get my ideas across.
He put his arm on my shoulder and he said: `Rachel, you have no
It was a revelation. "I learned that I didn’t have to be attached
to what was going to happen, but I had to have intention when I
Gradually, she learned that she didn’t have to draw
like every — or even any — other student. Her line was her
own. "I was struggling with my own perception versus reality —
and struggling with perception versus representation."
Bliss came into her own with a solid grounding in figurative painting.
It is, of course, her mastery of traditional art practices that allows
her to flaunt all the rules. Working fearlessly with whatever media
she has at hand — acrylics, pencil, wax crayon, nail polish, or
soot — her transgressive, beautiful images are conjured on the
surface of cast-off linoleum tile, Masonite, photographic paper, or
sheet metal. The effect is something like a scavenger’s treasure
The show includes a whole wall of Bliss’s playful miniature portraits
— dozens of them — all different, quirky, and original, all
painted on three-inch-square tiles.
Bliss had a major show at Rider University in 1997, curated by James
Dickinson of the sociology department, and titled "A State of
Bliss." Her work has been featured at Malcolm Bray’s annual
at Old English Pine in Lambertville. She was also featured last fall
in a two-artist show at Mercer Community College, with Barbara
titled "Liminal Spirits."
"Bliss draws on an energy and a spirit that is both accessible
and dark," says Tricia Fagan, curator at MCCC. "There’s
almost subterranean about her imagery. She takes lives of people that
she lives among — people she relates to personally — and where
some would see aspects of these lives that are sad or depressing,
she transforms them. She provides a transformative look at the full
picture, a picture that includes all the humor and color and rich
textures of a human being."
With so many ties to graphic design and illustration, her family
her to work in the field. She has received commissions for editorial
illustration from publications that include the New York Times, the
New Yorker, Time Magazine, and the Philadelphia Inquirer. Bliss says
she works from life when she can; yet even when she has a subject
sit for her, she supplements the sitting with photographs that she
In addition to a gallery of characters, young and old, dark and light,
rich and poor, the show includes several explicit self-portraits.
In "Mine," we see a woman with a voluptuous face wearing a
little cone cap who is brandishing a broad raised sword. Her torso
is bloodied with three wounds, yet she seems to have succeeded in
decapitating a leering monster that flies through the air above her.
While working in the fabled tradition of Durer and Rembrandt, her
effect is more closely allied to Francis Bacon or Frida Kahlo.
Asked about her interest in self-portraiture, Bliss invokes the
and discipline it requires. Beyond that, she is typically understated:
"If you want to work from life, there are not a lot of people
who are going to sit for you," she says, "but you’re always
going to be there."
— Nicole Plett
Hopewell, 609-333-9393. Artist’s gallery talk for the show that runs
to June 8. Wednesday to Saturday, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.; and Sunday, noon
to 5 p.m. Free. Saturday, May 18, 3 p.m.
Deborah Almeida Land and Madelaine Shellaby, recent work. To May 24.
Nassau Street, 609-921-6748. "From Tow Path to Bike Path:
and the Delaware and Raritan Canal," an exhibition that looks
at the history and creation of the canal, and more recent
and preservation issues. Open Tuesday to Sunday, noon to 4 p.m.
Photographer Phil Kramer’s benefit show, "Heroes Among Us."
Kramer spent five months traveling around Princeton community
people who give of themselves through humanitarian efforts,
actions, or selfless public service. Admission to exhibit is $15,
donated to one of the charities honored in exhibit. To June 1.
Police, firefighters, conseling services, family services, government
organizations are among the groups represented and profiled in the
exhibit. Open Tuesday to Thursday, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.; Friday, 10 a.m.
to 7 p.m., and Saturday, 11 a.m. to 5 p.m.
"The SoHo Blues," Allan Tannenbaum’s show of images of Bruce
Springsteen, Jimi Hendrix, Bob Marley, Keith Richards, as well as
his 1980 photos of John Lennon and Yoko Ono. To June 3.
609-252-6275. "Mind-Body," an invitational group exhibition
of works by artists who explore the subject of science and medical
technology using such tools as MRI, X-rays, and microscopic
Gallery hours are Monday to Friday, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.; and weekends
and holidays, 1 to 5 p.m. To June 23.
Exhibiting artists from New Jersey are Abbie Bagley-Young, Catherine
Bebout, Janet Filomeno, Eileen Foti, Frances Heinrich, Maria Lupo,
Tim Trelease, and Debra Weier. Also featured: Rick Bartow, Justine
Cooper, Irina Nalchova, Fredericka Foster Shapiro, Marina Guitierrez,
Jeanne Jaffe, and Inigo Manglano-Ovalle.
"Blood, Sweat and Roadkill," a shared show featuring collages
by Stacie Speer Scott and copper and bronze sculpture by Bernard
Open Friday, Saturday, and Sunday, 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. To June 2.
609-773-0881. Group show by Jill Biros, John Boyd, Sheila Coutin,
Catherine DeChico, Marianne Ham, Donald Henderson, Don Jordon, Carol
Magnatta, Jeane Nielsen, and Bill Smith. Thursday to Sunday, noon
to 6 p.m. To June 2.
"Layers of Time and Space," an exhibit of works on paper
by Barry Snyder and featuring Diana Gonzalez Gandolfi, Margaret K.
Johnson, and Joan B. Needham. Gallery is open Thursday to Sunday,
noon to 5 p.m. To May 27.
Washington Crossing, 215-862-2021. "Canal Impressions," juried
exhibit of art inspired by the Delaware Canal, sponsored by the
of the Delaware Canal. Open Tuesday through Saturday, 10 a.m. to 5
p.m., and Thursday, 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. To May 25.
Annual Spring Exhibition features pastels by Nancy Silvia and
by Charles R. Ross. Open Wednesday to Sunday, noon to 5 p.m. To May
609-397-4590. Solo exhibition of silver prints by multi-media artist
Victor Macarol. "My images are gently humorous, often ambiguous,
vignettes on the foibles of humans and other living creatures who
are desperately fighting for survival in an impersonal world,"
says Macarol. The artist is recipient of a New Jersey State Council
on the Arts distinguished artist award. To June 15.
Hope, 215-396-7040. 10th annual show, juried by Sandra Davis, Jeff
Hurwitz, and Laurence Miller, features 130 images selected from a
field of 700. Open 1 to 5 p.m. daily. $3. To June 2.
609-397-5679. "Light Conversation," an exhibition of new work
by Robert Beck. By appointment to June 2.
"Play It Cool," an exhibition of new and rare prints by
artist Shag. Gallery hours are Thursday through Monday, 11 a.m. to
6 p.m. To May 27.
New Brunswick, 732-846-5777. "From the Old World to the New
an exhibit of recent additions to the museum collection featuring
works by nine Hungarian Americans, all of whom emigrated to the U.S.
between 1920 and 1957. Artists are Laszlo Moholy-Nagy, Bertha and
Elena De Hellenbranth, Sandor Sugor, Emil Kelemen, Willy Pogany, Tibor
Gergely, Zoltan Poharnok, and Vicent Korda; to April, 2003. Also,
original art and text from the book "Light From the Yellow Star,
A Lesson of Love from the Holocaust" by Robert O. Fisch. To June
9. Museum hours are Tuesday to Saturday, 11 a.m. to 4 p.m.; and
1 to 4 p.m. $5 donation.
732-745-4177. "Uncommon Clay: New Jersey’s Architectural Terra
Cotta Industry," an exhibition of artifacts and written and oral
histories of New Jersey’s once booming architectural ceramics
Open Tuesday through Friday, 1 to 4 p.m.; and Sunday, 1 to 4 p.m.
On view to May 30, 2003.
215-340-9800. Bucks County Invitational V, the annual show of
works features Vincent Ceglia and Lisa Manheim, paintings; sculpture
by Karl Karhuma; and the photography of Claus Mroczynski; to July
7. Outdoors, a group of minimalist sculptures by Maria A. Hall, to
June 30. Open Tuesday to Friday, 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.; Saturday &
Sunday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.; and Wednesday evenings to 9 p.m. $6.
Brunswick, 732-932-7237. "India: Contemporary Art From
Private Collections," the largest exhibition of its kind to be
held in an American museum. Show features more than 100 works from
20 collections, with an emphasis on the post-independence era, 1947
to the present. Museum hours are Tuesday through Friday, 10 a.m. to
4:30 p.m.; Saturday and Sunday, noon to 5 p.m. Admission $3 adults;
under 18 free; museum is open free to the public on the first Sunday
of every month. To July 31.
Indian artists include members of the Progressive Artists Group, F.N.
Souza, M.F. Husain, Krishna Ara, and Syed Raza. Also first and
Indian modernists Ram Kumar, Tyeb Mehta, Ganesh Pyne, and artists
who have emerged in recent years such as Atul Dodiya and Jitish
Sculpture, drawings, and paintings by Hyung Jun Yum. Gallery hours
are Monday to Thursday, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. To May 30.
"Window Works" by Marilyn Anderson, black-and-white cityscapes
taken in London, Dublin, Rome, Prague, and New York. Also "Thirty
Plus Years of Imaging Snow" by Jay Goodkind, enhanced montage
prints of snowscapes photographed over three decades. Gallery hours
are Saturday, 11 a.m. to 5 p.m., and Sunday, 1 to 5 p.m. To May 26.
Solo exhibition of Sandra Nusblatt’s watercolors, "From Hopewell
to the Jersey Shore." Open Tuesday to Friday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.;
Saturday, 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. To June 28.
908-996-1470. "Ed X 3," an exhibit by painters Ed Baumlin,
Ed Bronstein, and Ed Letven. Open Wednesday & Thursday, 11 a.m. to
5 p.m.; Friday & Saturday, noon to 6 p.m.; and Sunday, noon to 5 p.m.
To June 10.
Road, 609-921-3272. "Words & Pictures of the Vietnam War,"
a prizewinning exhibition of photographs by the late Steven H. Warner,
a Montgomery resident killed in Vietnam in 1971. Produced by
College and the Pennsylvania Humanities group, the exibit appeared
at the Smithsonian Institute in 1995. In the Upstairs Gallery: Hetty
Baiz, watercolors, pastels, and mixed media. Both shows to May 31.
Warner, whose father was a judge in Montgomery Township, attended
Montgomery and Princeton Schools in the 1960s. After graduating from
Gettysburg College and attending Yale, he was drafted in 1969. During
his three years in Vietnam, he photographed soldiers and wrote about
what he saw; both pay homage to the soldiers there. Warner was killed
in an ambush in February, 1971.
Van Dyck: `Ecce Homo’ and `The Mocking of Christ.’" Also, "In
the Mirror of Christ’s Passion: Images from Princeton University
Both shows to June 9. Open Tuesday through Saturday, 10 a.m. to 5
p.m.; Sunday 1 to 5 p.m. Free tours of the collection every Saturday
at 2 p.m.
Also "Klinger to Kollwitz: German Art in the Age of
an exhibit of prints and drawings that comprises an overview of late
19th and early 20th century German art, to June 9. "Contemporary
Views: Photographs by Paul Berger, Sarah Charlesworth, Barbara Ess,
and Ray K. Metzker," to May 26. "American Drawings and
to July 21. "Guardians of the Tomb: Spirit Beasts in Tang Dynasty
China;" to September 1.
609-258-3184. "Heroic Pastorals: Images of the American
Gallery hours are Monday to Friday, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.; Saturday and
Sunday, noon to 5 p.m.
Library Place, 609-497-7990. "Natural Rhythms Stilled," an
exhibition of photographs by John Hess, a photographer and biology
professor at Central Missouri State University. Monday to Saturday,
8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.; Sunday 2 to 8 p.m. To June 28.
Lawrenceville, 609-896-5168. Annual exhibition of works by Rider
students in all mediums. Monday to Thursday, 2 to 8 p.m.; Friday to
Sunday, 2 to 5 p.m. To August 11.
Princeton Photography Club exhibit of both color and black-and-white
photography including nature photography, double exposures, still
life, landscapes, and portraits. In the main lobby, to June 14.
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