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Figuring the Human Body at Portrait Society

Aug. 22, 2017
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Herman Aguirre’s paintings become even more stunning in person, as photographs don’t fully capture the sculptural dimensions of his work. The paint is laid on so thickly that it becomes like clay, seeming to churn on the surface and yet retain the DNA of its subject. In many of these, it is his wife. Through the vigorous mountains of paint, a spirit remains that simultaneously exposes and disguises the likeness of the body.

Aguirre is just one of 21 artists in the “NOW Figuration” exhibition at Portrait Society Gallery. Many have shown at the gallery before but here they come together as a response to an exhibition held 35 years ago at the Milwaukee Art Museum called “New Figuration in America.” The primary question for both is the same: What do representations of the human body communicate through different styles and forms?

The striking, large-scale drawings of Dominic Chambers stand out for their sense of drama framed through a synthesis of art history and personal biography. Every Time the Sun Comes Up is a stirring pietà where a dark-skinned woman holds the stretched out body of a man we surmise is her son. Another figure hovers in the background as though taking on the guise of a protector. The sense of gravitas is quiet but evident.

Lois Bielefeld’s photographs of people in neighborhoods at dusk use the unflinching nature of the medium tempered by Bielefeld’s exquisite sense for light and personality. In Juanita, a woman stands in front of silent reflections in a swimming pool. The waving lines of the pool slide become a pale, abstract glide, balancing the woman’s steady, solid pose with her feet planted wide and hands on hips.

The installation Shadows by J. Shimon brings the body into our own space through life-size drawings and painted Plexiglas cutouts. They float in a circle, ethereal but solid. Their presence in the gallery constitutes representations of a figure, but is also like markers to hold open a space. While the body in art has endless stylistic variations, perhaps its most important aspect is symbolic. 

Through Sept. 8 at Portrait Society Gallery, 207 E. Buffalo St., Fifth Floor. An artists’ talk featuring many of the exhibition participants will be held at 2 p.m. on Saturday, Sept. 2. 

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