Saturday, October 12, 2013

Barbara Vogel's Luminous Portraits

Barbara Vogel, two portraits, digital scans and encaustic, 24 x 12," 2013.
Author photo.
Luminosity is the name of Barbara Vogel's current show at the Sherrie Gallerie in Columbus. It's a show of haunting portraits that are defined by light as much as by more conventional representation. We expect to recognize peoples' features in their portraits. We expect the portrait to be a delineation of the face and body.

In these, however, the features are valleys and pools softly sunken in the auras of the sitters. Whether these subjects generate the light or the light accrues to them is indifferent. It illuminates thought and emotion that too precise and literal a focus would blind us to.
Barbara Vogel, Alex Rose, 24 x 12,"
digital scan and encaustic,
2013. Courtesy of the artist.
Vogel's portraits reveal people through their auras. What features we identify seem like shadows in the depth of luminosity—merely the traces, valleys, and pools of the everyday in something like the soul. While we might recognize people we know, Vogel's soft  focus and veils of light give each face a sober serenity that elevates it beyond the world of commonplace activities and speed.

These images are all the more haunting for their composition and framing. We feel like we are looking at antique tinted photos, or at images arriving from beyond the grave and just achieving substance. Because they are so tightly framed, the faces seem just this side of too big for their constraints. They spring out at the viewer in a way that would be alarming were it not for their benign expressions.

Even in these small, reproduced images, one can see the vertical lines that run through the works. They result from Vogel's unique process: She does't photograph her subjects, but she scans them, using a hand-held wand scanner. Because it's an implement designed to be used on books and flat materials, the portrait-sitters stand behind a piece of glass along which the artist passes the scanner. The portraits are printed, then painted with encaustic (melted beeswax infused with pigment). The surfaces retain ghost striations from the scanner and surface traces from the application of wax, which cools in patterns that follow or move athwart the scanner's direction.
Barbara Vogel, row of portraits, 24 x 12," digital scan and
encaustic, 2013. Author photo.

In another body of work, Vogel uses her Hasselblad camera with traditional color film to take slightly out-of-focus, portraits with shallow depth of field. These small, square photographs are also covered with encaustic, which adds to their other-worldly, unattainable quality.

Of both sets of work, Vogel writes in her statement of their "mystery and intimacy."
I find them mysterious, but the effect on me of the lack of definition is the opposite of intimacy: I find their inscrutability distancing in a poignant way—indeed, I find them unknowable as ghosts of people who were once familiar.

In Vogel's photographic portraits, the environments in which her subjects are portrayed are ordinary, domestic settings. The sitters have been captured informally, going about their business on normal days. Were the pictures less obscure, would we find the portraits more interesting? Would we take more interest in the subjects, or learn more about them? Where would greater visual clarity get us? I'm not sure that visual focus would deliver as much information about the individuals as their retreating images do.

Barbara Vogel, Dad, 2013. Color photograph with encaustic.
Courtesy of the artist.
The image of Dad, the old man in his wheelchair, says a great deal about the subject in its composition and fuzzy focus. His dark chair and dark form are visually an extension of the shadow that cuts across the lower portion of the frame: In how much longer will he be entirely swallowed by darkness?—a question that he must know he's facing, with the sun behind him, placing him in dark silhouette against a lively pink world. His hands clutch one another in a gesture of patience or resignation. His body has shrunken until it is barely the size of the wheelchair: He has to lift his elbows to the armrests. The gates appear gigantic behind him.

Yet Dad's presence is near the center of the composition, and it is the most complex form in the picture; everything else revolves around it, no matter how wizen or obscure the person has become. Fading away, hard to reach, the elderly father remains hard to define, yet central.

Barbara Vogel, Liz, 2013, Color photograph with encaustic.
Courtesy of the artist.
Liz is another photographic portrait sharing the virtues of Dad. Again, Vogel's composition is wonderful. She divides the square vertically into halves of light and dark demarcated by a ragged line. The window, though is in the "dark" side, behind the sitter, and casting her into shadow. The light on the left seems to be reflection in glass that separates us from her; the whiteness of the reflection obscures her face even more than the shadow does.

The sitter is, again, squarely in the middle of the composition, this time looking directly at us, but the shadow and glare prevent us from seeing her features. She does nothing to hide, but circumstances render her wholly obscure. Is she in her own space? Is that a calendar on the wall, mirroring the shape of the window? 

We can't be sure of the age of this sitter, but the portrait's theme of mortality seems related to Dad's. The movement of light and shadow relate not only to the person, but to the life. This girl or woman has a quality of stillness that resembles suspension, like one sees in bottled, preserved zoological materials. If she's alive, will she live? Are the shadows closing in on her, or is the light advancing?
Barbara Vogel, Dale, Brent, and Ernie, 2013.
Color photograph with encaustic. Courtesy of the artist.

A couple of the works in Luminosity are composed in a manner familiar to anyone who's walked by the windows of commercial photographers specializing in family portraits. Dale, Brent, and Ernie fill the frame of their cheerfully-decorated, well-lit interior. They pose in pleasingly descending size, from standing, through sitting, to obliging little pet advancing a paw.

In the presence of such portraits, I usually feel manipulated in conflicting ways. On the one hand, the photographer is inviting me into the happy group. It appears so wide open, congenial, and normal. The portrait is about their agreeableness.

On the other hand, it's a triumphant picture. Placed in such a setting, how could one fail to be anything but agreeable? The smiles aren't friendly—they're satisfied. You, the viewer are not in the picture, and that's the point.

Dale, Brent, and Ernie plays with this genre of portrait by pushing everything away—the sitters and their environment both—as if they were not merely out of focus, but were receding. The brightness of the window and the illumination around the edges of the painting call our eyes to the back, and we move the foreground people back with our glances. "Everything is good," it seems to suggest, "except for the inexplicable force that won't permit us to believe this picture."

Barbara Vogel's show runs through November 9 at the Sherrie Gallerie in Columbus. It is so worth seeing: Until you are eye-to-eye with these portraits—the scanned ones especially—it's hard to understand how they can affect your heart; how they draw the viewer into the space between physical and spiritual presence. It's a big space.

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