Visual Arts Review: Ambiguity in Wonderland — Rachel Portesi’s “Standing Still” at the Griffin Museum
By Helen Miller and Michael Strand
More than skin deep, and not as sentimental as it might first appear, Rachel Portesi’s adoption of Victorian techniques is appropriate to the themes of loss and change she sets out to explore.
This month at the Griffin Museum of Photography in Winchester, MA, a uniquely retro collection of tintypes, Polaroids, and 3-D pictures fill the Atelier gallery and stairwell for Rachel Portesi’s solo exhibition Standing Still, curated by Christa Dix. Not unlike the Brattleboro Museum, where the artist showed in 2020, the Griffin provides a picturesque, serene setting in which to view Portesi’s still and moving images of young women, their hair intertwined with elaborate flower arrangements and twiggy tree branches.
The plants in Portesi’s portraits contribute a Victorian-era atmosphere in otherwise archetypal New England environs, along with the use of antique frames, a salon-style display, and old-school cameras that are used to screen films. The exhibition is not limited to 19th century technology, but ranges over an extensive history of analog photography prior to the digital age, featuring a 16mm film shot on a hand crank Bell & Howell, digital footage screened through the lens of a Polaroid Land Camera, and iPhone pics in updated Viewmasters.
Animated wonders all, but it’s the photographs we encounter first. Goddess (2018), a 14 x 14 in. tintype, is one of the larger and more arresting in the show. At the center of this image, a model crowned in orchid flowers blooms from a cocoon of giant leaves. Hosta foliage of the Empress Wu variety encircles her relatively diminutive but no less regal form. Her poised bust could have been cut-out for a collage or puppet show, while the out-of-focus, blurry stalks suggest manipulation just out of frame. The emergence of the goddess feels sudden and theatrical, especially in conjunction with the historical medium Portesi has chosen. The surreal effect is reminiscent of a Frida Kahlo painting though as whimsical as a page out of a Cabbage Patch Kids origin story. The photograph illustrates the idea, reflected in the artist’s exhibition statement, that a woman can be reborn at any age.
Smaller, similarly bronze-toned tintypes, such as Madame Molly (2022), Racco Golightly (2019), and Floating and Vernal (2011), celebrate female power in playful variations on flower portraits and the less common motif of hair sculpture. French braids, milkmaid braids, topknots, and low buns are manipulated, transformed through the aid of greenery and clothespins, among other items from the home and garden. Nina Katchadourian’s popular Lavatory Self-Portraits in the Flemish Style (2019 and ongoing), fashioned with the materials on hand in an airplane cabin, come to mind, although Portesi is not so self-conscious or concrete. In some respects, the sculpted hair designs in Portesi’s portraits are more akin to Louise Bourgeois’ iconic spider monuments, particularly Maman (1999), an outsized weaving of bronze and steel. Like Bourgeois, Portesi calls on the unusual but surprisingly elegant angles of a spider’s legs to draw a kind of objecthood from hair. At first glance, this can look like non-art, as with Bourgeois’ sculptures — just a giant specimen model or, in Portesi’s case, a hairstylist’s wildest dreams. But when Portesi gives hair an arachnid cast, she also creates resonances with spinning and the supportive webs. A metaphor for maternal strength, perhaps, leggy braids seem to defy gravity in Chandelier Hair (2019-2022), a grid of twelve black-and-white, black framed Polaroids.
Just as we’re wondering what more to glean from this harvest of hair, a gallerist directs us to a large format camera monocle. We take turns looking inside, where the same chandelier, attached to the ceiling with what we can now see as fishing line, sways every time the model moves (Portesi is an avid angler as well as gardener). This is Moving Hair, a combined 16mm and Super 8 film transferred for digital playback. Through a neighboring lens, the careful braids from another stock-still tintype are unbraided, much to our pleasant surprise. As the process of creating the photographs comes to life, their final form and meaning are also illuminated.
Hair Film (2022), screened inside a boxy Eastman Kodak Brownie camera that belonged to the artist’s grandmother, captures a model interlacing her hair into a doily, a novel material strategy now all the more apparent. It is relatively easy to look past such inventiveness in the photographs because of the repetitive, predictable nature of other decisions. Most of the figures in the still images are centered, for example, which leads us to take the composition for granted and fail to notice more subtle, original moves, such as sewing a segment of hair into fabric as a way of framing a face.
The attentive gallerist disappears upstairs and returns with a box of Viewmasters, handheld devices first introduced in 1939 but familiar from childhood, in which stereoscopes play pairs of negatives from cardboard discs. She suggests stepping into the light from a north facing window, where, inside one deceptively simple plastic contraption, gracefully posed models shape shift a kind of postmodern dance across a bucolic landscape. In another animated series, a model walks down a suburban street and spontaneously obstructs her face with an oversized leaf. Through the revelatory home-movie feel of Portesi’s 3-D pictures and hybrid films (iPhone, 16mm, Super 8 and footage shot on the artist’s Canon all stitched together), the stakes of the show come into focus: What representation or combination of time-based media best accompanies each season of a woman’s life?
Tintypes exude vulnerability, a characteristic feature of the medium even in its own day, deriving from the unnaturalness of subjects asked to stay still for so long. The models’ patience, in addition to their literal and figurative exposure, is endearing, yet when the same frames are set in motion, they arrive at a ground truth: the lived-in world that validates the still photographs. Flickering details and depths of field seduce and mesmerize; the tintypes and Polaroids work best as a foil for the moving images. No mere props, the old cameras and viewing devices are really the heart of the show, transporting the viewer into the artist’s studio, to an off-season greenhouse and other verdant locations where images are remembered, imagined, and remade.
This vivid documentation of the process also helps to overcome the pitfalls of nostalgia and pastiche that Portesi’s project often risks. The affectation that overruns popular sites like Etsy is mostly avoided, the potential for affect to overwhelm a recuperative project deflected. More than skin deep, and not as sentimental as it might first appear, Portesi’s adoption of Victorian techniques is appropriate to the themes of loss and change she sets out to explore.
In Portesi’s most successful attempts to communicate an experience of natural beauty and its transience, we see echoes of Karl Blossfeldt’s hauntingly precise, geometric close-ups of plant life from the early 20th-century through the lens of something more contemporary, like Andy Warhol’s Screen Tests (1964-1966). Warhol’s short films were made not to assess performers for future roles but to realize the everyday magnetism of artists and friends. The gestures of Portesi’s models are similarly compelling.
Portesi’s reflections on womanhood call up other seminal projects from the not-too-distant past, including Lorna Simpson’s Stereo Styles (1988), a series of black-and-white Polaroids of a young Black woman’s hairstyles from the back. But Simpson’s “anti-portraits” are more formally rigorous and politically resonant than Portesi’s portraits because they draw on the recognition of Black women’s agency as a counter to their persistent absence from media at the time. From the previous decade, Ana Mendieta’s Untitled (Facial Hair Implants) (1972-1979), in which the artist cuts off the beard of a classmate and attaches it to her own face, is provocative and more pointed than Portesi’s hair pieces. As radical as it is playful, Mendieta’s work questions the gender binary, the expectations and regulations that code a “feminine” appearance.
The choice to photograph primarily young, female-identifying models, combined with the intimacy of Portesi’s images, also recall the work of Francesca Woodman, though Woodman served as her art’s main subject as well as subject matter. The eerie discoveries made by Woodman’s long exposure photography are far ahead of most experiments in vintage or Victorian-esque portraiture, in terms of technical, psychological, and overall aesthetic accomplishments. Despite the association, the case is no different here.
The resemblance of Portesi’s photographs and films to significant work from the ’70s and ’80s notwithstanding, Standing Still falls outside a recognizable urban canon. It deals with less explicit forms of oppression and emotion. The feelings expressed in Portesi’s portraits are often ambiguous. Her perspective, or the model’s perspective, is not always clear. For instance: Is Molly (2018), in her small-hoofed-animal horns, really a vixen? Does Willa Star of Persia (2021) feel like a star? Regarding Isabel in Flower Crown (2021), does the prospect of parenting — her crown’s resemblance to a busy mother’s hair towel wrap — weigh the model down? Portesi has spoken on the topic in interviews, but what do these images of mostly youthful women have to say about life after motherhood?
The latent tension between moving and still images, however enjoyable, does not compensate for a lack of definition or force. Considering the extent of the exercise — the hours spent tying up young women’s hair, the posture required of these models to adapt to the temporality of a 19th century machine — the results are surprisingly mild, neutral, even sanitized. This suggests an opportunity missed, an invitation to explore darker sides of femininity, sexuality, and aging.
A tintype most often depicts the dead. In the spectral presence of a shadowy image, the medium itself cannot help but commemorate the past. For all their creativity, Portesi’s portraits remain fairly conventional and might not have overcome this historical association or deathward pull. And yet, there is a presence here that commands attention, especially in light of the process-oriented films. The act of joining human form with the floral, arboreal, and arachnid is enlivening, and the instant that Portesi’s portraits matter for us, the world does too.
Helen Miller is an artist. She teaches at the Massachusetts College of Art and Design and Harvard Summer School. Michael Strand is a professor in Sociology at Brandeis University.
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