‘About Face’ at Narrows: Portrait exhibit is more than meets the eye
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‘About Face’ at Narrows: Portrait exhibit is more than meets the eye

With a distorted circle for a head, three simple spots to represent eyes and nose, and an unsure line or curve to represent a smile, a young child’s drawing of a face is endearing.

Along with the classic painting motifs of the still-life, the landscape, the nude, and the allegory, portraiture is enduring.

The still-life might speak to the beauty of things, the landscape could offer insight into the pastoral or the urban, the nude may be steeped in eroticism, and the allegory might seek to offer a lesson, often with roots in religion, mythology, or folklore.

“Predator” by Ricki Vespia. Credit: Don Wilkinson / The New Bedford Light

But the portrait is the only one that looks back at us. 

A portrait locks eyes with us. It demands acknowledgement. And we accede, if only for a moment.

“About Face” is ostensibly a portrait show. But the four-person exhibition currently on display at the Narrows Center for the Arts is far more than that. While some of the works are comfortably ensconced in the traditions of classical portraiture, such as an unwavering fidelity to likeness, others go in unexpected directions. 

The face is omnipresent in the exhibition, even as the artists deep-dive into pop culture mainstays such as horror movies, science fiction, and celebrity worship.

Ricki Vespia, a self-taught Rhode Island painter who has had his artwork on album covers for punk and hardcore albums, displays bold spray-painted portraits of (mostly) fictional characters that would steal the show in any Halloween-themed exhibition.

“Elysia” by Joanna Viera. Credit: Don Wilkinson / The New Bedford Light

One is of “Predator,” the extraterrestrial hunter stalking Arnold Schwarzenegger and his mercenary crew in a South American jungle in the 1987 movie of the same name. “Pennywise the Dancing Clown” is Vespia’s image of the sewer-dwelling supernatural entity nourished on the fears of young children in the fictional town of Derry, Maine, every 27 years, created by Stephen King.

Both “Predator” and “Pennywise” have enough creepy cultural cachet to ensure some visitors will but glance and turn away. Other portraits by the artist include the gorgon Medusa, Lilith of Mesopotamian and Jewish mythology and supposed first wife of Adam, and a tongue-wagging Gene Simmons.

Joanna Vespia (wife to Ricki) also displays her work in the show. Her “Genesis,” at 216 by 78 inches, is the largest work in the show. Clearly sharing some of her husband’s enthusiasm for the horror genre, it features a young woman floating in the ocean with a far-off glowing sunset behind her. With a knowing nod to Peter Benchley and Steven Spielberg, the fins of two sharks approach the oblivious swimmer.

Her work includes some of the strangest and loveliest portraits in the show. “Elysia” features a blue-eyed, freckled woman in left-facing profile. Her white hair rises like an Afro, but it resonates like a thundercloud. The inexplicable presence of a large yellow circle framing her head suggests that she is something more than human, a sky goddess revealed.

Vespia’s “Laetiporus” seemingly features the same blue-eyed, freckled woman, but with her hair dark and short-cropped. The circle positioned behind her again, she stares directly at the viewer while wearing a collar of chicken-of-the-woods mushrooms, an orange and ochre lei of fungus. What else could she be but an earth goddess?

Ty Paulhus, a painter based in Massachusetts, works primarily with ink and watercolor and takes inspiration from the aesthetics of punk rock, skateboarding, comics, and graffiti. His work is loose, in the best sense of the word. There are few hard lines, colors happily lean into each other, and nothing is overly defined.

Masks are a recurrent theme in his work. His false faces reveal an intangible something. “Mask 023” features deep-set indigo eyes and a nose like a downward arrow. Everywhere there are drops, but whether they are rain or sweat or tears is unclear.

“Retraction” by Ty Paulhus. Credit: Don Wilkinson / The New Bedford Light

Paulhus’s “Retraction” is a disturbing image of a woman with her eyes closed and without a mouth, as if her own skin had grown over it. She is unnourished and she is silenced.

The title suggests she took something back, likely because someone forced her to. Scribbled across the surface is an incomprehensible calligraphy, an attempt to communicate something she can’t say.

Paul Cardoso, an adjunct professor at the Rhode Island School of Design and a designer and screen printer at Ghost-Town Studio in Pawtucket, exhibits a vibrant series of painted and collaged celebrity portraits, with a decidedly Warholian vibe. 

“Johnny Cash” by Peter Cardoso. Credit: Don Wilkinson / The New Bedford Light

One of the portraits is indeed “Andy Warhol,” without a doubt the most famous pop artist ever. Appropriately, Warhol’s face is repeated several times throughout the Day-Glo work. The words “rejected” and “SOLD” are in the upper left and right corners of the painting, perhaps a not-so-subtle commentary on Andy’s commercial and social aspirations.

His portrait of “Joe Strummer,” the frontman for the Clash (and later, the Mescaleros), has him sporting a cocky smirk, projecting a righteousness and honesty that any serious Clash fan would appreciate and celebrate.

A somber mugshot portrait of a youthful “Johnny Cash” is pure no-nonsense Cash. Cardoso also exhibits portraits of musicians Sly Stone, Herbie Hancock, Stevie Nicks, Bob Marley, as well as Mark Twain and Abraham Lincoln.

Take a look at this art. I assure you, it will look back.

“About Face” is on display at the Narrows Center for the Arts, 16 Anawan Street, Fall River, through June 22.

Don Wilkinson has been writing art reviews, artist profiles and cultural commentary on the South Coast for over a decade. He has been published in local newspapers and regional art magazines. He is a graduate of the Swain School of Design and the CVPA at UMass Dartmouth. Email him at [email protected]

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