Portrait painting since the mid-19th century has been more about artistic self-expression and aesthetics than about commemoration or documentation, the new medium of photography having briskly assumed those pedestrian functions. Picasso’s megalithic painting of Gertrude Stein is more about observer than subject; likewise, Whistler’s “Arrangement in Grey and Black,” with its subhead, “Portrait of the Artist’s Mother” (added only after public outcry), and his subsequent portrait of Thomas Carlyle, given the same detached title, with an appended “No. 2.” (The paintings, naturally, surpass their distanced monikers.) Modernist artists were more interested in formal innovation than in reportage or reality (or consensus reality, anyway), and while postmodernists ventured into the real-world issues of race and politics, their work often shared the scientific-bureaucratic look and affect of minimalism and conceptualism, seasoned with theory and irony.
The works in Portraits from Far and Near by Susan Matthews and Lisa Esherick derive from the realist tradition (though modernized), and they’re less about recreational aesthetics than they are about transforming our attitude toward reality. Capitalism in its more toxic manifestations makes us consider everything in terms of money; these portraits, to coin a phrase, put people first. They reassert the inherent dignity of human life — nearby, in the stores of Shattuck Avenue or, somewhat farther removed, the studios of North Carolina (Esherick); and afar, in the villages and settlements of sub-Saharan Africa (Matthews). While both artists share a humanistic vision, they do differ in temperament and approach. Matthews symbolically depicts her subjects, the Hausa villagers and nomadic Wodaabis of Niger. Working from photographs, she transforms her subjects with their brilliant, beautiful clothing and handicrafts, into something like secular icons, timeless figures set against heavenly gold and silver backgrounds (“When It Rains It Pours,” “The Newlywed,” “Man from Tasha Ibrahiim”). (A portion of Matthews’ sales, incidentally, benefit a Wodaabi grain bank.) Esherick is more empirical, finding interest in faces, character, and environment, and in their transcription into painterly markings. They, too, are based on photos, but the effect is more casual and less hieratic — even her portraits of fellow resident artists done on Gothic ogival arched panels. Esherick’s Berkeley businesspeople (at General Appliance, Paul’s, Alko, Herbivore, Newberry’s Gifts, and Stonemountain & Daughter), painted in traditional rectangular formats, regard the viewer (or customer) with a calm dignity that seems, in these frazzled times, almost otherworldly. Portraits from Far and Near runs through May 30 at Addison Street Window Gallery (2018 Addison St., Berkeley). CityofBerkeley.info or 510-981-7546.