31 nameless orphans, looking for a home

Wesley Anderegg. “Man,” “Two Headed Man,” “Woman,” “Lollipop,” “Man with Pipe.” Ceramic plates. 18˝ × 23˝
Photo by Lauren Rock.

Anthony Bannon | Guest Reviewer 

Very few pictures wear name tags. Naming is the province of the caption, or of an oral tradition, sometimes passed on from parents to children, but more often eluding the good intentions of commitment to writing. The boxes of anonymous photographs in most home closets are silent testimony to this nominative failure. Worse yet, consider the images of family and friends banished, orphaned, at estate sales and flea markets, touching evidence of the painfully anonymous tradition of the portrait.

Judy Barie, director of the galleries of the Visual Arts at Chautauqua Institution, has opened an image shelter for the nameless at Strohl Art Center, in which she offers 31 unnamed images to patrons ready to provide foster parenting and a new home for only partially identified images.

Yes, there are a few pictures known by first names in the shelter — Allen, Joe, Steve, Trudy, Joe, and Virginia among them. Otherwise, we must be content with Two Headed Man, Small Female Head, Young Bride, and Teens on the Beach.

Taking over the main gallery, the exhibition, drawn from artists around the country, is called “Anonymous: The Contemporary Portrait.” It is marked by Barie’s curious signature of finding artists who engage the strangest ways to make pictures:

• Christian Faur’s pointillism created from the heads of crayons, installed points-out;

• Gugger Petter’s woven strips of newspapers and other papers to create thick lipped Madonnas situated in the tradition of mosaics from the Middle Ages;

• And Michael Ferris Jr.’s colorful heads and torsos assembled from tiny cuts of wood grouted in many hues, one sliver or circle or rectangle of wood grouted to another, building up finally into two- to three-feet-high figures.

Surely there is something monkish in these labors of love. One feels they should all be named in Latin, or at least the practice would be worthy of Latination; thus, labor amoris.

You’ve got to love Wesley Anderegg’s ceramic platters. That’s where the Two Headed Man lives along with the guy with the lollipop and the man with the pipe and two unceremoniously called Man and Woman. They come in many different colors, all of them vibrant, with dots or dappling enhancing their complexions. One skin is as if lifted from splatterware. And they are all smiling — well, kind of smiling, as they show off rows of tiny sharp teeth that recall Jack Kerouac’s warning about social smiles hiding teeth — pretty and white — that bite.

Artist Leah Yerpe assembles young people who tumble through the air together. One group is lucky to tumble with several horses. And they have the strangest names, such as Salt and Sail. But pay that no mind. She is from Olean, N.Y., now living in Brooklyn, and perhaps that explains it, for the drawings are reminiscent of Robert Longo’s friends who were drawn dancing or in pain and were rendered with a similarly skilled hand. He was living in Buffalo, N.Y., before he moved to Brooklyn.

Actually, there are several other connections. Faur’s haunting figures rendered with the tips of crayons recall Joe Zucker’s paintings made with paint dabbed cotton balls and shown years ago at Buffalo’s Albright-Knox Art Gallery. One of Faur’s pictures is a triptych, and it suggests the poetics of his imagery, rendered in grades of blue, yellow and grey — with one image depicting ceremonial candles, with the central image a portrait, the third a building at night.

Eric Zener paints on a transparent plastic overlay, dressing nude swimmers, a curious practice though prudishly appealing. These are smaller works; the artist is more a libertine in his large paintings, though in neither does he give his swimmer names, it makes no difference if they are under water or on the surface.

Jhina Alvarado ages her drawn and painted images with encaustic, removing highlights and tonal subtlety from groups of people photographed, making them still more anonymous through the application of a black bar across the eyes of the subjects, as one might have done as a dodge for prurient purposes back in the day when there was such a practice called prurience.

Finally, Mark Perrott makes photographs of people with tattoos, and for prosperous return, often depicting double portraits — the tattooed person and the person shown in the tattoo.

Ever since Narcissus we have been fascinated by the portrait, and some say it was a significant prod toward the invention of photography — all so we might believe in the picture. Such the ways of our attention that now we forget the names of our loved ones, and then make a show about it in an art gallery.

The 31 nameless people will await adoption through the end of the season.

Anthony Bannon is the executive director of the Burchfield Penney Art Center, a multi-arts venue on the campus of Buffalo State College. Previously, he was an art critic at The Buffalo News and director of George Eastman House in Rochester, N.Y.