‘Anonymous’ exhibition provides new insights on subject, viewer of portraits


Michael Ferris Jr. “Allen” and “Steve.” Reused wood, pigmented grout.
Photo by Lauren Rock.

Joanna Hamer | Staff Writer

Portraits are everywhere: George Washington’s profile on the quarter, Greek and Roman statues, the Mona Lisa, wedding photographs, death masks on sarcophagi.

Portraits immortalize. But though they seem to be common, a different side to them emerges in Strohl Art Center this week in “Anonymous: The Contemporary Portrait.”

From 3–5 p.m. today in  Strohl is the opening reception for “Anonymous,” a collection of everything that is a portrait without being, in fact, a portrait. Curator and VACI Galleries Director Judy Barie was inspired by Christian Faur, who creates art with thousands of hand-cast crayons, which resolves into images only at a distance.

“I wanted to do a portrait show that’s not a classic portrait show, that’s something different from what everybody has seen,” Barie said. “So then that was my challenge — how to take a portrait of somebody and it not be a portrait.”

The title of the exhibition sprang from Barie’s meditation on what constitutes a contemporary portrait, and whether the person represented is necessarily relevant.

“I decided not to include any portraits at all, but to include everything that involves figure and the face in an unusual way,” she said.

The portraits from eight artists — spanning a variety of media, size and content — tell a story about the role of the portrait and representation in modern art and life.

Michael Ferris Jr. carves statues of people out of recycled wood, which are then decorated with a mosaic of pigmented grout. The colorful patterns resemble anatomical guidelines for where muscles cross, or intricate tattoos or carnival masks worn to disguise identity.

“They’re very powerful pieces, and you can just feel his hand in them,” Barie said. “They’re much bigger than life size. They’re gorgeous.”

Another featured artist, Mark Perrott, actually represents intricate tattoos. Perrott’s interest in photographing tattoos and their bearers is more than 30 years old.

“I drove by a tattoo parlor often on my way to and from work, and I was curious about what happened inside,” Perrott said. “It was a mystery and a culture that I didn’t know a thing about.”

One day he stopped in, met the tattoo artist and spent a weekend watching the process and result of ink art. The next weekend, he went back with his camera and has not stopped photographing tattoos since.

“Tattoo has permeated and moved into the culture in such an incredible way, and I’ve followed it,” he said.

Perrott makes it his practice to take a photograph of anyone who asks, resulting in an estimated 5,000 or more portraits. He often goes to tattoo conventions that last three or four days, photographing hundreds of people.

“I think when people get tattooed, it’s a response to that inner urge to tell a story. To me, whatever marks are left are important clues,” he said. “Whatever the meaning of the tattoo is, its meaning to me is always: ‘Ask me about my life. Ask me about my journey.’”

Making photo portraits of people provides Perrott a way to ask about those stories and to record the images people place in their skin. When he exhibits the photographs, he identifies the subject simply by first name, leaving the rest anonymous, but still personal.

“They’re not meant to be filled with information or explanation. They are meant to be absolutely about one unique individual who lives on their earth,” Perrott said. “Everything about that photograph and everything that you see, including this ink in the surface of the skin, is about uniqueness, and individuality and the respect and glory of that.”

Another portrait artist is Leah Yerpe, who grew up in neighboring Cattaraugus County. Her childhood in western New York influenced her work.

“My house was surrounded by abandoned farms, so I spent a lot of time out in nature,” Yerpe said.

Yerpe began drawing intricate and scientific representations of natural things, which progressed to her current hyper-realistic human paintings, drawings and prints.

“When you do this very detailed intimate drawing that has every detail of the human body — the folds of skin and wrinkles, the little hairs — it’s kind of an intimidating experience, this intimate connection with the physicality of the human body,” she said.

Three drawings and one painting of Yerpe’s will be featured in the show, which contain incredibly lifelike renderings of people in organic resting positions, repeated with variations across the page or left alone on a background with no orienting landmarks. When she draws models, Yerpe asks them to take whatever pose they would like, and is inspired by their natural movements.

“Their gestures and their movements will remind me of things,” she said. “Subconsciously, I’m seeing these stories they’re telling that remind me of religious stories and mythology.”

Yerpe’s works are titled after constellations, or characters from the “Metamorphoses,” or plants and animals. Though they feature a specific person, they are not about that individual.

“I think the best portraits end up being a portrait of the viewer, because that’s what’s important to us,” she said. “We don’t care who the stranger in the painting is, what they do for a living. We want to know ourselves. … That’s what I’m working toward: How can I use someone else’s body, someone else’s image, to tell the viewer something very personal that only the viewer knows?”