Face to Face
200 years of Figurative Art on Long Island
William Sidney Mount
Long Island Museum, Stony Brook
June 7 -September 7, 2003
As Long Island develops and is transformed, so too the question of the identity of Long Islanders. How we define ourselves and how we have been defined takes shape in how we portray ourselves and how these portrayals are seen. Inevitably, we understand the ebb and flow of history from the vantagepoint of the present. Through the looking glass of today we peruse the monuments, objects and events of yesterday and understand both anew. Today we find ourselves in a new Long Island, reconfigured by its economic growth, cultural flowering and increased population density. These changes are reflected in the work being produced by todays artists, just as the art of the past two centuries stands as testament to what was and perhaps is no longer. Through representations of the figure, through the recurring human body, we can find a narrative that offers insight into the many possibilities of how we view the world and who we are in that world.
Long Island infuses the work of all of the artists in this exhibition. Each of them is either from the Island, has worked here, or has taken Long Island as subject matter. Long Island has a great deal to offer the artist, from the intoxicating energy of nearby New York City to the boundless potential of the ocean. Between these dramatic extremes is the everyday. Birthplace of the suburb and the mall and home to a mass of constantly changing communities, Long Island is a place with millions of ever-evolving identities, and countless stories.
Face to Face includes a broad range of work from traditional portraiture and historical painting to contemporary video, photography, painting and sculpture. At the beginning of the nineteenth century history painting, allegory and genre painting were the dominant forms of expression in the figurative arts (those using the human figure as an expressive form). But since the flourishing of abstraction in the mid-twentieth century, the figure has become an optional element in a work of art, as indeed is any concrete representation. Since then, shifts in modern art have challenged artists to go beyond the traditional, to challenge the history of art, to abandon representation, reality and even the actual work of art itself. Yet throughout, artists have constantly returned to the figure, albeit in constantly reinvented ways.
The Four Categories
Each of the works included in Face to Face is understood as a type of narrative, or a way of telling a story: the figures take part in a drama and fulfill roles created by the artist, the viewer and, finally, history. The variety of experiences and the chronology are related in a way that sheds light as if in a room of mirrors. Across periods, media and styles, the works function in conversations with one another. Each acts as an emanation that illuminates the work surrounding it. No two viewers will move through the gallery in exactly the same manner. Spurred by a piece, each can return to one already seen, to rethink it in light of another. This turns the viewer into an active participant in the storytelling process, allowing her or him to formulate a broader story, one in which the viewer plays a central role.
As a collection of works Face to Face is at once an exploration and a celebration. It explores the history of an exciting artistic tradition as well as its contemporary manifestations. It celebrates the artists who narrate the stories we have lived as well as those we are living. It is, in the end, an exploration of people, who they are and who they have been, what they have done and what they do. It is a celebration of experience particular to the people of Long Island.
Borne by a breath that is never seen, in these works the individual depicted becomes something he or she had only previously intuited. This transformation takes place outside the physical, either in the realm of the mind or in the spirit. A simple gesture turns an otherwise placid moment into a shock of anxiety or a revelation of beauty otherwise hidden.
As they move through space, interacting with the physical world, the individuals here come upon both themselves and the outer world as something new and shocking. The body encounters elements that challenge it, create it and re-create it. This is a passage of the individual from one point to another, through space and time.
The notion of leisure is loaded with a warming sense of relief from the strife and chaos of the everyday world. It is a chance to pause, enjoy and take in life's pleasures; it promises family and the familiar. Passivity is the underlying theme in this group, yet it need not suggest a negative passivity. It can also imply a contemplative moment, inactivity made dynamic through relief, peace and removing one's self from worldly conflict.
To lift a hand in labor, to embrace a lover, to write a letter, to play: in all these gestures we take action. Through our actions we are led to create, to experience, to love, to harm. As actors we take part in dramas both mundane and fanciful, and as actors we move through the world, transforming it and being transformed.
William Merritt Chase
William M. Davis
Willem de Kooning
Shepard Alonzo Mount
William Sidney Mount