Liver spots, wrinkles, pimples, neck rolls, and unfortunate haircuts feature heavily in painter Jonas Wood’s Portraits, a solo show at Anton Kern Gallery. In the age of Photoshop, these exaggerated flaws are oddly refreshing; they offer a subtle corrective to idealized renderings of the human form. A massive painting of Dwayne Schintzius, for example, memorializes the late NBA star not by turning him into a shiny basketball poster, but by giving him pointillist stubble, jagged forehead wrinkles, a spectacular mullet, and a deformed-looking three-fingered claw hand. In “Shio with Two Dogs,” Wood’s artist wife, Shio Kusaka, is rendered with such dramatically shaded cheekbones and under-eye circles that she looks like the victim of a botched contouring job.
Instead of making his subjects look grotesque, Wood’s emphasis on physical imperfections just makes them look human. It also adds rich texture and pattern to his canvases. The way Wood applies paint, in blobs of solid color with crisp edges, suggests patchwork or construction paper collage. In some works, this flatness of style, paired with the slightly dazed non-expressions of his subjects, blunts what could be strong emotion in these portraits; they’re perhaps better approached as large-scale, Maira Kalman-esque illustrations than as paintings to contemplate.
Other paintings read like odes to the awkward family photo. “The Bat/Bar Mitzvah Weekend” (2016) is a throwback to Wood’s coming of age: A Bar Mitzvah boy stands posing with his family in a suit, hands clasped, hair combed to the side, his speckled face a cringing mix of pride and adolescent self-consciousness. “Young Dr.,” a portrait of an unnaturally posed little boy in a sports uniform, has a similar effect. Dogs and cats act as supporting characters in many of these; Wood seems to really like painting fur, which he renders in a kind of camouflage pattern of jagged little stripes. These hairy animals make the humans who pose with them look stranger and more self-conscious by contrast. Without resorting to satire, these portraits capture what’s so awkward about family photos and staged portraiture: The forced poses and smiles, the dated fashions, the tension between how special a “special occasion” might have felt and how dorky it actually looked.
Jonas Wood: Portraits continues at Anton Kern Gallery (532 West 20th Street, Chelsea, Manhattan) through October 29.
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