In a gallery slightly larger than the space occupied by a booth in a fancy restaurant, I was literally surrounded by three larger-than-life-sized heads, each of which was in a different position. But whether seen in profile or head on, all seemed to be acknowledging my presence. The effect was eerie, interesting, and unique to urban life. The three portraits were in the exhibition Jenny Dubnau: Regarding at Satchel Projects (February 10–March 12, 2022), which was just launched by Andrea Champlin and Chaitan Khosla. This is one of those one- or two-person, shoestring operations the art world should be rooting for — I certainly am.
The exhibition is composed of four paintings and two works on paper. According to the gallery press release, “Jenny Dubnau […] paints photo-based psychological portraits.” While the portraits are larger than actual heads, they are not monumental. Dubnau is not memorializing an individual. Rather, she is interested in that nameless, momentary encounter that can happen between two individuals, a modern subject that Édouard Manet pioneered in the painting “The Railway” (1873), in which a woman holding an open book, with a sleeping dog in her lap, has looked up and caught you looking at her out of curiosity as you pass.
Dubnau wants to step out of the long-accepted conventions of portraiture, in which the subject is posed and comes across as if frozen in time, a strategy that seems to be true of painters as different as Lucien Freud and Jordan Casteel. By placing the four paintings in a small, semi-enclosed area, all looking at you, the viewer, she establishes a different power dynamic than the hierarchical one that is typically upheld by portraiture. That’s what made me curious about these paintings when I first saw images of them on social media, along with announcements about the gallery’s launch.
The exhibition’s four paintings measure between 36 by 36 inches and 36 by 48 inches, while the two works on paper in the back room depict the same subject and measure 24 by 18 inches. Dubnau is not interested in maintaining the one-to-one relationship that is the basis of most observational or realist paintings. Rather, she seems to be drawn to that psychologically charged instant of the momentary encounter. In contrast to the open-ended narrative that Manet so brilliantly evokes with his attention to detail, Dubnau strips the encounter down to the individual’s face, seen at eye level, looking at you as they pass you by.
For this exhibition, Dubnau invited people she knows over to her studio and began photographing them. They seem to be always moving, and none of the paintings feel posed. Her attention to surface, to skin and volume, seen in light, also struck me. Instead of reifying painting’s two-dimensional plane and photography’s flattening of the subject into an image, she acknowledges the effect of the artificial light on her subjects, from the glint it causes on someone’s glasses to its reflection on the top of someone’s bare head. Her goal is not to replicate the photograph’s image on a larger scale. Rather, it is honor silent momentary encounters, which are tenuous at best. This is urban life. We pass more people than we talk to.
In “T.G., turning” (2018), a Black man with a shaved head and salt-and-pepper beard has turned to look at whoever is there. What does his look tells us? The fact that his look resists translation — and this is true of the other portraits as well — is one of the exhibition’s many strengths. The works stay open to our looking, rather than becoming attached to a narrative or backstory. No matter how familiar the artist may be with her subjects, she does not make them into props in a story.
In “C.H., profile” (2012), the subject’s head is seen in profile, but she side-eyes us. The effect is uncanny, as she seems completely aware of our presence. She isn’t, of course, but that sense is part of the painting’s power. We become conscious of looking when we encounter Dubnau’s work. And once we begin looking, Dubnau’s attention to detail takes over. The monochromatic background isn’t really a solid plane made by a singular color.
Knowing that Dubnau invited these individuals to be photographed was intriguing, as the nature of the relationship between artist and subject is never spelled out. One could say that they refused to be subjugated by being the subject of a portrait, which is almost a condition of appearing in one of Freud’s paintings. That open-ended pas de deux between artist and subject lies at the heart of Dubnau’s works, the unlikely combination of seriousness and playfulness, indomitability and vulnerability. And best of all, the encounter between “I” and “Other” evoked by the portrait resists being put into words. For all of the artificiality of the dance initiated by the artist as photographer (and portraitist) and responded to by the individual (friend, colleague, or stranger), something breaks through. That’s what makes these paintings powerful. At a time when most figurative paintings are inseparable from narrative, Dubnau has created a visual and psychological space in which the relationship between one’s perception of another, unknown, individual and the language used to define that ephemeral contact is not clear.
Jenny Dubnau: Regarding continues at Satchel Projects (526 West 26th Street #620, Chelsea, Manhattan) through March 12.
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