Attitude galore

As they strut, sulk, preen, pose, glower, pout, stare or hide behind sunglasses, Kristin Beaver's "sitters" do anything but sit or stand decorously in the manner of classic portraiture. Her show of more than two dozen oils at Meadow Brook Art Gallery, though certainly dashing, eschews the grand manner and to-the-manner-born subjects of Sargent, Boldini, Whistler or Shinkler, portrayers of the high, classy and dressy. Nor are they much like the cool, sober images of area artists Leman Lambert, Richard Lewis, Nancy Mitter or Robert Wilbert.

Instead, the gallery is thronged with young people painted by a young artist, both artist and subjects twentysomething scenesters. Recently graduated from Wayne State University's MFA program, Beaver's figurative art fits more comfortably with that of some of the New York hotties of the moment, the somewhat elder, now mainstream Lisa Yuskavage, John Currin, Elizabeth Peyton or her equally youthful Gotham peer, Livonia-born and -bred Dana Schutz. Like Peyton (and photographer Nan Goldin), Beaver is immersed in the world of her friends and acquaintances who figure prominently in her oeuvre. "My muses," Beaver says, "are definitely my friends."

Though the show presents many memorable portraits of individuals — including the dark, big-haired Morticia in "Hocus Pocus" and "Big Gulp," the two visages of "Jo Beth," the cool stance of local painter and rocker Bill Hafer and the unnamed man in "C-Rocket" with "Ooh la la" scripted on his T-shirt — the real tours de force of the exhibition are her up-to-8–feet-tall, larger-than-life dynamic duos. These couples, a man and a woman or two women — so far no male and male pairings — strike poses in shallow spaces, attired in clothing chosen by Beaver (either their own or thrift shop finds by the artist). The theatrical poses, combined with palettes both candied and acidic and wardrobes that play pattern against pattern — matchy-matchy versus mismatched, or retro kitsch jostling sleek contemporary — produce scene-stealing performances.

Their posed and poised acting-out and eclectic getups, stage-managed and photographed by Beaver as she works toward a definitive image, exude a spirited joie de vivre as well as complicity among the participants. Heightening the sense of collusion is the sharp, studio-lamp illumination of the simple compositions. Directed from outside the frame, the lamps create overlapping shadows that shimmy between the figures, suggesting an intermingling of their spirits in spite of their seeming aloofness. Beaver, in fact, suggests that one of her abiding interests is her fascination with the kindred-spirit relationships of "partners, pairs or sidekicks." Though at first glance the duos may seem to be unlikely compatriots, their complementary roles and sense of self-possession implies otherwise.

"Two Sarahs" and "Sassy Sarahs" are portraits of the same pair, local fashion designers-cum-artists Sarah Lapinski and Sarah Lurtz. The tall, red-haired Lapinski and the short, blonde Lurtz strike poses and sport costumes that shout "Look at me!" Though neither actually looks at the other — exemplars as they seem to be of idiosyncratic style and feisty independence — the layered, darkling shadows between them link their portraits and attest to the complex layers of their personae.

Conversely, in "Body Language," an earlier painting, the nameless man and woman, posed as if in a police lineup, adopt similar upraised arm poses, but their clothing, or lack thereof, and the relative assertiveness of full-frontal stances, emphasize difference rather than consanguinity.

And in her own "Self-Portrait with Dilettante," Beaver wraps herself in a body-hugging sheath swarming with screaming skulls (think Edvard Munch) and carries a vintage white purse, while her companion, facing the opposite direction, is garbed in a chic, faux Courreges acid-green sheath and holds a pinkish drink (perhaps a cosmopolitan?) in a black fingernailed hand. Both dilettante and artist affect expression-obscuring shades, of course.

So, one might well ask, to what extent are these bold, colorful effigies of friends, muses and models functioning as portraits or figure studies? What are the parameters, if any, here? If they are moldable, suggestible models, why do the pictures, despite their artificialities, not feel false and strained, but vivacious and empathetic? Perhaps it's the evident rapport one senses between subjects and artist, the vibrancy she confers on each, the kicky brio of her technique and brisk application of pigment to canvas, the conspiratorial edge and palpable good faith between all these dancers of the dance.

Certainly, there is as well more than a modicum of implicit heroizing of these denizens of the decade who seem to be giving the performance of a lifetime. I, for one, am captivated.


Through April 16 at Meadow Brook Art Gallery, 208 Wilson Hall, Oakland University, Rochester; 248-370-3005.

Dennis Alan Nawrocki teaches art history and writes about art in metro Detroit. Send comments to [email protected]
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