Face to Face – Penelope Gottlieb’s early works featured at Cabana Home

When an artist makes an abrupt 180 in her style, it’s always time to sit up and notice. Penelope Gottlieb has become synonymous with nature, especially the freakiness of nature, of extinction and mutation. Her acrylics and oils took a modern approach to Audubon-era nature painting, either by adding a crazed overlay, or by applying those old techniques to flora that make it look as though it was disintegrating before our eyes.

“Portraits in Air (A Series Revisited)” isn’t that. At all. And it’s not new. In fact, this short series of paintings dates from 2004, long before nature crept into the scene. In this exhibition at Edward Cella’s satellite gallery at Cabana Home, there’s little to tie these works to her current series, except for anxiety.

'A Fuego Lento (A Slow Fire)' Cabana Home photos 'Un Pasaje De Mi Vida (A Period of My Life)'  'Desde Otros Tiempos (From Another Time)'
‘A Fuego Lento (A Slow Fire)’
Cabana Home photos
‘Un Pasaje De Mi Vida (A Period of My Life)’
‘Desde Otros Tiempos (From Another Time)’
The “Air” in the title is airbrush, and Ms. Gottlieb has used an airbrush to create these close-cropped portraits on aluminum and wood. The faces are human, male and female, mostly (or presumably) white. We see eyes, nose, lips. They rarely gaze at us, mostly looking afar. Harsh diagonals follow the verticals of the faces, hemming them in even tighter. Some, like “Accordate (Remember)” look like silver screen, movie-star portraits. Others look like proper portraits for which someone sat, like “Desde Otros Tiempos (From Another Time)” where a young man (or is it a woman?) gazes straight at us, with his (or her) face. And yet others— and this is where we get close to Ms. Gottlieb’s anxiety— look like surveillance photos, caught on the sly. “Amore y Celos (Love and Jealousy)” only gives us the hooded eyes of a woman, as if she’s passing by in a crowd. But that title alludes to so much more: voyeurism, stalking, and generally illicit behavior.

From afar, these works seem basic: low contrast, identifiable, slightly mysterious. The print that accompanies this review gives some idea of this view. But step closer and things become harder to make out. On the aluminum works in particular, Ms. Gottlieb has coated these works with some sort of car enamel, as well as using glitter in her clear coat. At certain angles, and with certain lighting, the faces disappear and it is all sparkle. Comparisons to Warhol’s late period, diamond-dust portraits could be made, but may be just coincidence.

In her statement, Ms. Gottlieb mentions facial recognition software and hyper glamour. These faces have more to do with the former and not so much with the latter. Such software breaks our identity into recognizable parts, but these feel reassembled. If there is glamour, it’s of the old-fashioned kind, enigmatic, icy. Ms. Gottlieb has remained silent regarding who in fact any of these people are, although she’s hinted one is famous. Which one is anybody’s guess.

Of the seven pieces, the odd one out is “Ella (She)”— the only full figure on display. In smoky grey, a woman walks to the right, a handbag over her arm. Behind her, the street is empty. She could be a regular person, or she could be a bank robber — there’s a surveillance vibe to this image. And the fact that this is the choice that comes to mind shows the kind of society we’ve become. In 2004, it was apparent to Ms. Gottlieb, and it’s refreshing to see these works now.

Penelope Gottleib, ‘Portraits in Air
(A Series Revisited)’
When: Through Sept. 14. Open 10 a.m. – 6 p.m. Monday through Saturday
Where: Cabana Home, 111 Santa Barbara St.
Cost: Free
Information: 962-0200, www.edwardcella.com

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