Amid the snow and ice, a couple of Tacoma galleries stood staunchly open last week – and Brick House was one of them. The upper downtown gallery had just opened a self-portrait show by 20 established local and regional artists, and while there are a few unremarkable works, most take on the topic of self from unusual viewpoints.
Two of those come from Alan Hopkins: The Bay area artist uses himself as a metaphor for larger human issues with inventive grace. In “Painting Through It,” Hopkins positions an iconographic, waist-up nude of himself behind a thick wire screen. Despite interesting composition (a Buddhist-inspired pose, with arms bent at 90 degrees holding a paintbrush and mirror with tapered, delicate fingers) the portrait is static and uninspiring, until you realize that Hopkins has in fact painted it through the screen itself. The crisscrossed wire casts prison-like shadows on Hopkins’ body, the flatness of the portrait takes on a new metaphorical dimension, and paint dabs on the wire blur the boundary line.
In “There But…” Hopkins captures a disturbing and sad slice of humanity with an almost abstract installation: Layered photographs capture, wave by wave, an incoming tide washing over the artist’s shoes at a beach where desperate locals burn insulation from stolen copper wire to scrounge a living. With the gray bleakness of the beach photos surrounded by fragments of a torn, dirty tarpaulin, Hopkins sums up the sadness of the situation, and his own chance-like position as viewer rather than participant.
Other works take on the standard facial self-portrait in new ways. Pam Ingalls’ miniature oil is full of burnished copper light, breaking up the line with color. Mike Corcoran paints himself in a Rembrandt-like pose and chiaroscuro, complete with eye-glint. Melissa Weinman plays with her own reflection – calmly ironic above, screamingly agonized below – in “The Trap,” and Mark Hoppman, whose illustrations are up at the UPS Collins library, paints his own long-legged dawn shadow over some beautifully textured watercolor sand dunes.
Gallery owner Peter MacDonald has no less than three of his own works in the show, each getting better and better at capturing his towering height and gracious humor: an unmemorable watercolor leads to a 1990 oil with upward look and direct gaze, before progressing in 2003 to a terrific likeness with extreme foreshortening, turquoise eyes and cartoon wrinkles.
Nancy Johnson, seen all too often at Brick House, appears swimming in a couple of pastels that don’t capture the brilliant shimmer of water that her oils do. But there’s a lovely charcoal self-nude by a heavily pregnant Mindi Katzman, breast and belly heavy with shadow, and a much darker charcoal by Jeffree Stewart, the rough strokes painting a Picasso-like wryness and wild-haired worry.
Best of the show, maybe, is a six-portrait work by Tacoman Robert Vogel, a laughing, in-your-face mix of paint, pastel and graphite showing himself in six bizarre poses. The greenish background and brilliant deftness of shadow only emphasize the inherent silliness of pulled eyes, pushed noses and poking-out lips in a painterly warning never to take ourselves (or our self-portraits) too seriously.
“Self Portrait: Past to Present” is up through February, open noon-6 p.m. Feb. 4, 5-9 p.m. Feb. 16 and by appointment. Free. Brick House gallery, 1123 S. Fawcett St., Tacoma. 253-230-4880, www.thebrickhousegallery.com