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  • Worcester Art Museum Unveils Portraits from its Collection for the Major Exhibition, Mask or Mirror? A Play of Portraits

    (WORCESTER, MASS. Aug. 27, 2002) - Sovereigns and soldiers, daughters and divas, and courtesans and clergy comprise an eclectic cast of characters assembled for the Worcester Art Museum's major fall exhibition, Mask or Mirror? A Play of Portraits.

    The exhibition, on view Oct. 6, 2002 through Jan. 26, 2003, combines cutting-edge contemporary portraits with masterworks from the Museum's Asian, Egyptian, Roman, European and American collections. Leading contemporary artists including Nan Goldin, Salomon Huerta, Cindy Sherman, and Bill Viola share gallery space with masters Francisco Goya, Thomas Gainsborough, Gilbert Stuart, James A.M. Whistler, Mary Cassatt, John Singer Sargent, and many others. These juxtapositions illustrate how even the most traditional portraits were not created with a singular goal of likeness, but frequently involve elements of role-playing, anonymity, and abstraction.

    “Like biographies, portraits are based on varying degrees and kinds of fact, but they are also the result of artful storytelling and interpretation, in a collaborative process shaped by the artists, subjects, and the viewers,” said Curator of Contemporary Art Susan L. Stoops, who organized the exhibition. “While some portraits reveal intimate details about their subjects, others conceal aspects of their identities or fantasize the lives they wish to live. The current revival of portraiture by a young generation of international artists challenges us to see the genre and its conventions more critically.”

    Mask or Mirror? A Play of Portraits draws on the Worcester Art Museum's renowned collection of portraiture, with examples spanning five millennia of world cultures. In organizing the exhibition, the Museum has acquired several important contemporary works, including Iñigo Manglano-Ovalle's 1998 DNA family portrait, Catherine Opie's 1993 photograph of “Jo,” Shirin Neshat's 1995 self-portrait with her son, and Bill Viola's 2000 video diptych entitled “Union.” The Worcester Art Museum commissioned British artist Julian Opie to create a group portrait for the ongoing Wall at WAM mural project. The 67-foot-long computer-generated image is installed in the Renaissance Court. Not surprisingly, photography plays a prominent role in the exhibition, including two additional site-specific installations by Korean artist Do-Ho Suh and Boston-based Sa Schloff, as well as contemporary photographs on loan by artists from around the world, such as Rineke Dijkstra, Hiroshi Sugimoto, and Zhang Huan.

    In keeping with its theatrical title, Mask or Mirror? A Play of Portraits is organized in four thematic acts: Masculine Masquerade, Who is She, “Family Values” and No Body.

    Act 1. Masculine Masquerade features males in roles ranging from sovereign to soldier, priest to patriarch, and cross-dressing stage actor to schoolboys playing military dress-up. Contemporary images by Andy Warhol, Hiroshi Sugimoto, Chuck Close, and Salomon Huerta are considered within the context of Egyptian, Roman, and Persian portraits exploring the pretense of public vs. private personas and anonymity despite likeness. Portraits of men (and boys) in “uniform”-as soldier, cleric, and cook- question any preconceived notions about the wearer's beliefs, values, and behavior. Issues of mortality surface in self-portraits by American colonist Thomas Smith and contemporary artists Zhang Huan and Gregory Gillespie.

    Act 2. Who is She? explores the multiple roles frequently played by women. Questions of resistance and conformity, artifice and fact, and appearance and identity abound. Portraits of non-conformists like 16th-century courtesan and poet Veronica Franco, by a follower of Tintoretto, and lesbian writer Gertrude Stein, by Imogen Cunningham, reveal women who dared to be accomplished at life and love. In the late 19th century, James A.M. Whistler reduced his mistress to an abstract arrangement of color and form, while more recently Kurt Kauper's “Diva Fiction” appears as a realistic depiction but is actually a fictitious composite from many sources. In portraiture as in life, the female body can be an object of voyeurism. From the School of Fontainebleau comes a 16th-century boudoir portrait, “Woman at Her Toilette,” and, in 1993, Catherine Opie photographed “Jo.” In each case, it is her body but whose gaze?

    Act 3. “Family Values” illustrates how portraits mirror the complexities of domestic relations across centuries and cultures. The exhibition allows for comparisons of traditional, historic portraits of “mother and child” by the workshop of Bronzino, Mary Cassatt and John Singer Sargent with recent self-portraits with their sons by Renee Cox and Shirin Neshat. Images of sibling groups-sisters, identical twins, and children of the artist-explore different family dynamics, while traditional pairings of couples exhibited alongside portraits of interracial and same-sex couples consider our changing “family values”

    Act 4. No Body consists entirely of works by contemporary artists who create conceptual portraits that reveal identity without showing likeness. It is thought that the earliest known image associated with identity was an abstract symbol, the handprint. While contemporary portrait artists, such as Gary Schneider, continue to explore identity through handprints, advancements in biotechnology have enabled the work of artist Iñigo Manglano-Ovalle, who creates family portraits from DNA profiles. Nontraditional portraits by Jim Hodges and Byron Kim also incorporate abstraction while others use professional attributes (Nam June Paik), clothing (Charles LeDray), and biographical text (Felix Gonzales-Torres) to act as surrogates for the people portrayed.

    “While these ‘disguised’ portraits may tell us little in terms of portraiture's traditional task-likeness-they reveal extremely intimate details about their subjects and thus add a challenging new dimension to the question, Mask or Mirror?” said Stoops.

    A full complement of special events and programs are planned in conjunction with Mask or Mirror?, including a series of artist lectures, a family day, and a Masquerade Soiree celebrating the opening of the exhibition on Saturday, Oct. 5. Mask or Mirror? A Play of Portraits and the related events are also a part of Portraits!, a series of exhibitions, programs and events presented by Worcester Cultural Coalition members from October 2002 through January 2003.

    “Given the Museum's rich holdings of this genre, we have long wanted to mount a major portrait show,” said Museum Director James A. Welu. “We are delighted to join our cultural partners throughout the city to present Portraits! and to build excitement and interest for Worcester's great cultural treasures.”

    Mask or Mirror? A Play of Portraits is sponsored by Fallon Foundation and the Horace W. Goldsmith Foundation. Additional generous support has been provided by the Elizabeth Firestone Graham Foundation and David & Marlene Persky. The Contemporary Program is supported by the Don & Mary Melville Contemporary Art Fund. The media sponsor is the Worcester Telegram & Gazette.

    Museum Background

    A cultural jewel of New England, the Worcester Art Museum first opened to the public in 1898. Its exceptional 35,000-piece collection of paintings, sculpture, decorative arts, photography, prints and drawings is displayed in 36 galleries and spans 5,000 years of art and culture, ranging from Egyptian antiquities and Roman mosaics to Impressionist paintings and contemporary art. Its extensive four-season studio arts program enrolls 6,000 adult and youth students each year. Museum hours are Wednesday through Sunday, 11 a.m.-5 p.m., Thursday, 11 a.m.-8 p.m. (sponsored by Commerce Bank), and Saturday, 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Admission is $8 for adults, $6 for seniors and full-time college students with current ID, and FREE for Members and all youth 17 and under. Admission is also FREE for everyone on Saturday mornings, 10 a.m.-noon (sponsored by The TJX Companies and Massachusetts Electric Company). The Museum is located at 55 Salisbury St., Worcester, Mass., easily accessible from the Massachusetts Turnpike (I-90), Route 290 and Route 9. Expanded parking is available near entrances on Salisbury, Lancaster and Tuckerman streets. For more information, call (508) 799-4406.