Milwaukee Art Museum exhibit shows the many faces of a portrait

What makes a portrait something significant, something more important than the picture on a driver’s license? A portrait is a key allowing access to another person’s stories or serving as a reminder of our own.

Two exhibitions at the Milwaukee Art Museum delve into the many ways we show ourselves and how photographers respond to the ordinary and extraordinary human condition.

Two videos by a Dutch artist comprise Rineke Dijkstra: Rehearsals. The first is “Marianna (The Fairy Doll),” which shows a young ballet dancer in the midst of her practice, going over the choreography for an upcoming audition to enter an important ballet academy. The voice of her coach is heard off-screen. In Russian, she gives instruction and plays the music again. There is a gentle intensity in the focus of the youthful dancer. As she dances, her emotional state is also a performance. She smiles brightly in the guise of the Fairy Doll, but when the music stops and she receives her feedback, we see her real self. She is attentive, listening carefully, and sometimes lightening with a smile as we presume she is receiving positive commentary. She speaks as well, sometimes with a slight laugh and acknowledging nods of her head.

But this is difficult and at times frustrating work. She brushes stray hairs or perspiration from her face, smoothing back her long blond hair wrapped in a braid. Her face is flushed with pink. It ends up matching her leotard, dance skirt and the pink walls of the dance studio. The windows are covered in long lacey curtains, much like the lace handkerchief the dancer holds as a prop. Metal electrical conduit runs along the walls, painted in the same delicate blushing color. It is like a nod to the efforts necessary for her craft, both raw and refined.

In a three-channel video piece in an adjacent gallery, Dijkstra focuses on rhythmic gymnasts as they practice. “The Gymschool, St. Petersburg” features single figures who perform moves that would challenge even the most avid yoga practitioner. They contort their young bodies through bends and twists “while assuming near inhuman poses,” as MAM curator of photography and media arts Lisa Sutcliffe notes.

The background is sparse and white, and the only sounds heard are deep bass thuds as hands or feet hit the floor. This accompaniment is like a note of solidity, a reminder of the solid skeletons underneath the seemingly endless pliability of the body. Here again, there is a juxtaposition. There is the absolute concentration of the young gymnasts as they are absorbed inward, fixated on their body in space and the technical manipulations of their sport. When they finish, there is often a wry smile or acknowledgement of the spectator, coming out of the realm of the internal world to reconnect on the outside.

In her exhibition essay, Sutcliffe points out that Dijkstra is aligned with artists of earlier periods who cast a more interested eye on the rigors of rehearsal than on the glamorous and smooth perfection of the final performance. The French Impressionist Edgar Degas is noted for his paintings and drawings of ballet dancers in the studio or practicing onstage. Dijkstra, by virtue of the realism of video, echoes this in a way that is not unknown from contemporary documentaries, but her aesthetic eye and the formal qualities of composition set her work apart from a mere record of events.

What also is notable in Dijkstra’s work is the sense of youthfulness. In her previous projects, she has focused on the transformation of her subjects over time, beginning at a young age and recording the subtle changes that mark the passage from childhood to adulthood. One series was recently acquired by MAM and it is also on view. “Almerisa, 1994–2008” is a series of 11 images that record the evolution of Almerisa, a Muslim refugee from Bosnia. First pictured in an asylum center in the Netherlands at age 6, she is seated on a chair with a countenance that is both guarded and innocent. About every two years subsequent, Dijkstra photographed her again and we see her moving through changes in style, hair color and demeanor as she grows up in Western Europe. She is a kid, then a teenager holding in some of that decade’s angst, and then in the last images 2008, a pregnant woman and a mother holding her own child. Each time there is little in the background, focusing our attention on Almerisa herself. In this way, she becomes something of an archetype for the process and progress of life, making an identity of her own fashioning.

‘The Lives of Others’

Shown in conjunction with Rehearsal is a sprawling array of photographs from the Milwaukee Art Museum’s collection. The Lives of Others: Portraits from the Photography

Milwaukee Art Museum
The Robert Mapplethorpe photograph above is from his dramatic triptych “Ajitto.” The photo is included in The Lives of Others: Portraits from the Photography Collection at the Milwaukee Art Museum.

Collection at times echoes themes of Dijkstra’s work, particularly in the selection of photographs by Sallie Mann. Noted for her portraits of her own children, we follow her daughter Jessie from age 2 to 10, emerging into self-awareness and presented with an intimacy that is reliant on the status of her mother as photographer.

The exhibition continues into other areas, touching upon the ways photographers frame their subjects, sometimes in formal ways and others by capturing the raw humanity of our lives, even as we are not looking. Individuals and families photographed in their daily surroundings, such as Milton Rogovin’s “Buffalo’s Lower West Side Revisited,” show glimpses into the styles and mores of earlier decades. Often there are standard tropes detected, such as subjects who are seated or standing, smiling for the camera. In “Puerto Rican Family” this is broadened by the wife holding a photograph of the 11 people in their family while her husband stands next to her holding a guitar. Behind them on the wall of the home are two other portraits, presumably the previous generation. It is a nod to the lineage of humanity that binds us together.

The exhibition includes works by other well-known photographers, including André Kertész, Cindy Sherman, Edward Weston and Alfred Stieglitz with a portrait of Georgia O’Keeffe. Robert Mapplethorpe is included with his dramatic triptych “Ajitto.” Outside the exhibition gallery, Frederick H. Bandlow’s images of residents of Theresa, Wisconsin, features groups of individuals who seem to be captured in unexpectedly relaxed moments, despite the formality of the conventional compositions. Their expressive faces register various modes of thought from playful to weary. The series “Talent,” by David Robbins, traces the fine line between real and representation. Head shots of his artistic contemporaries are produced as though they are actors or models looking to fill a role. On the whole, the grand scale of all of the works in these exhibitions revels in the distinctions between a portrait and a mere photograph.

Upcoming Events

Fear 13

Art Bar

722 E. Burleigh Street

Fri., Oct. 7 Exhibition opening

It’s that time of year for the spooky to take its place on the walls of Art Bar. Continuing the tradition of interestingly macabre, eerie, and sci-fi inspired art, this exhibition will feature works by Stephen Somers.

I Am. We Are. —
TEDxUWMilwaukee 2016

Peck School of the Arts
Mainstage Theater

2400 E. Kenwood Blvd.

12–5 p.m. on Sat., Oct. 8

The famous TED talks (Technology, Education, Design) have expanded into satellite conferences, and this year Milwaukee will have its own panel of ten presenters from multiple disciplines including the arts, business, social issues, and more. Full details of the days’ presenters and events can be found at

Jason Salavon: “Computational Art: Data & Algorithm as a New Brush and Palette”

Haggerty Museum of Art

Marquette University campus

530 N. 13th St., Milwaukee

3:15 p.m. on Thurs., Oct. 13

How does art interact with the media and information glut that is our world today? Jason Salavon will share his ideas and observations in his presentation, “Computational Art: Data & Algorithm as a New Brush and Palette.” His work, The Master Index, draws from a table of the titles of the five million most-read English Wikipedia articles and is currently on view at the Haggerty. Salavon will speak about his practice and issues that lie between creativity and the autonomy of the digital world.