Extreme reality

Portraiture show captures inner lives of its subjects

Portraiture hasn't always been about beautiful people paying artists to gloss over that hairy mole and blemished skin. Amid physically enhanced portraits of 17th-century aristocrats and contemporary captains of industry, there have been exceptions to the rule, like Peter-Paul Rubens' inescapably real painting of the spongy flesh of his wife Helene Fourment — just one example of a painter expressing all-forgiving love by embracing imperfection.

Contemporary realists like Lucian Freud and Jenny Saville, taking a more conceptual approach, have made their own reputations by painting fleshy, mottled bodies in the kind of raw detail that defies the usual painterly interest in unmarred, taut white skin and refined postures.

But 22-year-old self-taught Athens artist Sunaura Taylor may do them one better in her lush oil and watercolor portraits of physically unconventional subjects. Taylor not only paints with precocious skill, her disability requires that she paint holding a brush in her mouth, often while lying on the ground.

Taylor has a clear personal investment in painting less-than-perfect bodies. Her own disability is a result of the U.S. Air Force illegally dumping contaminated waste in Tucson, Ariz., where she was born.

But Taylor's subjects in Portraits and Figures at Arts for All Gallery are not limited to the disabled. Her notion of a counterculture is broad. It encompasses Athens hipsters in egghead glasses and Louise Brooks bobs. It also includes a painfully frank full-body portrait of a wailing baby with truncated legs and arms, "Depleted Uranium." Both communities seem connected to Taylor's own experience, of being not only disabled but raised in a bohemian town by a painter mother who taught Sunaura and her siblings at home.

Taylor is someone who relishes the human condition in all of its diversity — both physical and philosophical. Rather than recording the peculiar experience of the disabled, she seems to tap into a condition many could relate to, of entrapment and isolation. Just as her use of dense, smoky, earth-toned backgrounds and an absence of distracting background details lend a kind of mystique and romance to her subjects, those rich backgrounds also cut them off from the world. Her subjects are captured in a contemplative solitude.

That idea is certainly articulated in two self-portraits of the artist, one as a toddler, strapped into a bouncing swing. In "The Jolly Jumper," the baby Taylor wears a precociously thoughtful expression, as if considering philosophical questions larger than the next bounce. In "Self-Portrait," the artist is an older child, splayed at an awkward angle face-down on the floor, limbs akimbo, and wearing a pair of wings. Taylor's decision to paint herself as a child gives an added poignancy to her project. It is hard not to connect emotionally with images of children and the implication of physical and psychological obstacles to overcome. What could have been a show about the unique circumstance of being disabled becomes a larger, deeper project about the common experience of being human.

Other works, which document the kind of Richard Linklater slackers that flourish in Athens, are portraits of people who are marginalized, not by physical circumstance, but by choice. The hip girl in the black bob, "Karen," or the young man in John Lennon glasses and nattily groomed beard, "David," illustrate the artist's preference for quirky, off-kilter compositions to suit her iconoclastic subjects. And Taylor's works hum with appreciation for male sexuality. Like boy-mythologizer Elizabeth Peyton, who paints brainy heartthrobs like Kurt Cobain and a young John Kerry, Taylor pays homage to fragile, intense, beautiful boys captured in still more poetic rumination.

Few things on the regional arts scene are as thrilling as the kind of painterly skill Taylor exhibits. As in all satisfying portraiture, we are pulled emotionally in, into the intense stares and dignified distraction of the artist's sister, "Astra," gesturing with one fluttering hand-motion in the air, a mop of a dog at her feet. What Taylor seems to capture more than imperfect bodies is the life of the mind. Despite the static poses, there is intense, fantastic work going on deep inside, and the people the artist documents are able to wear evidence of such inner states on their skin.


A meet-the-artist reception with Sunaura Taylor will be held Thurs., Feb. 3, 5-8 p.m.

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