Like everyone, artists are products of the culture they are surrounded by. It is almost guaranteed that an artist’s work will somehow reflect their environment: whether they are celebrating it, depicting it accurately, altering it in some way or pointing out its flaws. Important members of the community, each artist holds a unique voice that provides an individual account and interpretation of the their surroundings.
The great Renaissance painter Raphael was asked about his painting of Galatea, a figure from Greek mythology. The figure of Galatea was so beautiful, many were asking who his model was; no women on Earth could be so beautiful. Raphael responded by saying that he had combined the most flattering aspects of the seven most beautiful women he knew, creating a perfectly idealized woman.
This example shows that an artist has an amazing power. They are able to render products of imagination, and make visible the invisible. Artists do not have to just realistically depict things they see or the natural world around them. Rather, they have the ability to take inspiration from their surrounding cultures and then show what is underneath the surface, emphasize things we would never notice, show emotions behind a subject, or create compositions that are completely unrepresentative of anything.
Although there are endless subjects, portraiture is a common theme that goes far back in art history. Serving as a form of documenting one’s physical characteristics, mood and personality, portraits hold endless possibilities within a traditional format. Human emotions and characteristics consume our lives, and therefore, offer many opportunities for artists to impose their thoughts and demonstrate their interpretations.
Even in portraiture, an artist’s culture shines through; portraits offer a glimpse of how the subject fits within their environment. They can often show a leadership role, an important event in one’s life, or a characteristic that is influenced or created by their society.
It is also important to note that a viewer’s cultural background and experiences also change their view of a work of art. Just as an artist’s voice, each audience member’s response will be incredibly unique based off of their own influences.
A wonderful conglomeration of these themes was demonstrated in the Milton Rhodes Art Center’s “Faces of the Community” fine art exhibition. Running from Feb. 22 to Mar. 20, this show houses many different examples of portraits crafted by members of the Winston Salem community, showing their political awareness and diversity. Several paintings in particular caught my attention.
First, two very large paintings, one depicted a woman in a pastel dreamlike atmosphere laying on her back, raising her chin upwards. Her hair elegantly surrounded her head in painterly swirls and swoops, making almost a dark halo around her. She looked beautiful, sensual and relaxed.
The other painting, by the same artist, was of Martin Luther King Jr. The same large scale as his other work, this piece had the same painterly, gestural hand. With a similar color palette, the artist depicted a conventional image of the social rights leader. In both of his works, the subjects look powerful and significant.
Two other smaller paintings also automatically drew me in. With many bright and colorful paintings hanging on the gallery wall, these two jumped out. With dark and dreary greys, both of these paintings only had single pops of bright color. Both of them seemed to depict figures sitting, uncomfortably waiting or relaxing. The more powerful of the two featured a couple, sitting in front of fence, surrounded by a dog and all of their belongings. Painted in greys, the only color in the piece is the teal of the woman’s coat. The other shows an elderly man sitting in a ledge with several bright orange bags places next to him.
Another work was also quite captivating. This work was very small and depicted no human subject at all. Rather, it was a collage of masking tape with scribbled squares and rectangles, creating an interesting layered composition. The artist’s statement explained that they were inspired by the different images created by lights in the city at night. With this inspiration, the artist created what to me, was an abstract portrait of the city they call their home.
The difference of these three artist’s work shows just a few example of the endless possibilities an artist has. With different techniques, viewpoints, colors and perspectives, this show houses dozens of works that demonstrate how unique each interpretation can be: celebrating the beautiful diversity within the community.