Jill Poyourow's preoccupation with portraits began amid the savory smell of soup in her grandmother's kitchen. There hung an intriguing photograph of her grandma's grandfather, who had cared for her from infancy after her own mother abandoned her to come to America. The 1910 picture revealed a devout-looking man with a long, flowing white beard, seated with his right hand resting on an open book. In the shadows, Poyourow could barely make out his worn shoes.
"Despite [his] shabby clothing, his kind eyes infused this picture with a kind of magic," recalls the 40-year-old Los Angeles painter. "Over the years, he became godlike to me."
So when Poyourow grew up and became an artist, it was no wonder she turned to photographs from her own family albums for inspiration. Her work includes nostalgic, embroidered copies of mother-and-baby snapshots; there is also a painted-on photograph, "The Bundt/Sisters Piece" (1991), in which the artist has playfully embellished a photo of her five aunts, wearing sensible 1930s dresses, with images of each matron's bundt pan.
"Painting from images of deceased relatives, some of whom I never met, [has become] a form of ancestor worship," she confides. "It is, in essence, a continual self-portrait using the biological ties of family."
Poyourow (see sidebar below) is one of more than 20 artists whose work appears in the new Skirball show, "Revealing & Concealing: Portraits & Identity," an exhibit that is essentially a portrait of the portrait. The pieces range from traditional commissioned likenesses to late 20th-century work; the show begins with a 1670 image of an assimilated Frankfurt "Court Jew," artist unknown, wearing the elaborate wig and lavish lace of period gentiles. There is a moody self-portrait by the impoverished artist Lesser Ury, painted three years before his suicide in 1931, in which short, harsh brush strokes capture the artist's psychic turmoil. There is a bourgeois image of German-Jewish life, from around the same period, by the prominent painter Max Liebermann; a portrait of Jewish baseball star Sandy Koufax by R.B. Kitaj; and "The Marx Brothers" from "Ten Portraits of Jews of the Twentieth Century" by pop artist Andy Warhol.
"Revealing & Concealing" began, two years ago, when the museum's fine arts curator, Barbara Gilbert, perused the Skirball's collection and discovered a number of portraits of Jews painted during the past three centuries. A number of questions emerged: What insights can portraits offer beyond personal features? Can portraits reveal personality? Can they reveal facts about society, family or inbred cultural stereotypes?Since the Skirball's focus is multicultural, Gilbert promptly put together an advisory committee, including representatives from L.A.'s African-American and Japanese-American museums; the resulting exhibition features artists as diverse as L.A. Jewish painter Ruth Weisberg to African-American Faith Ringgold to Tijuana-born painter Salomon Huerta, who grew up in the Ramona Gardens housing project in East L.A.
The identity issues explored are often complex. Chinese-born Hung Liu's self-portrait is an enlarged "green card," in which she has substituted "Fortune, Cookie," for her own name - the sexual slang term for Chinese women and the stereotypical dessert served in Chinese-American restaurants. The piece is a metaphor for the artist's sense of hovering between cultures, of feeling neither Chinese nor American.
Chicana artist Laura Alvarez, too, explores what she calls "living in the border"; while growing up in the U.S., she says, she spent summers with family in Tamaulipas, Mexico, and cleaned houses with her mother and grandmother back home in the States. Her double life, in turn, led to a watercolor series, "Double Agent Sirvienta," which follows the adventures of a soap opera actress who always plays a maid but who is actually a spy on both sides of the border. It is, she says, "a way for me to see my position in the world as a heroine or protagonist."
A different kind of double identity is proffered in Dennis Kardon's "Traditional Instruction," in which the artist appears as a bar mitzvah boy wearing a tallit and kippah, and clutching a paintbrush and palette. Standing in for his father is the French impressionist Manet, whose swirling cigar smoke hovers over a platter of lox.
Albert J. Winn's self-portraits are far bleaker, exploring his feelings of isolation as a gay Jewish man living with AIDS. In the black-and-white photograph "Not in the Family Picture," the widely exhibited L.A. artist is, literally, not in the family picture; his face stares next to a photo of smiling relatives, excluding himself. In the second panel of Winn's "Family Triptych," the artist again stares at the camera, as does his mother, who is seated behind him and wears a defeated, wan expression.
For Gilbert, the goal of "Revealing & Concealing" is simple. "We hope visitors will walk away with a better understanding to the role of portraiture within Jewish art and various minority communities," she says. "We hope they will gain a better understanding that identity itself is multifaceted and far transcends ethnicity or cultural background."
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