Portrait Society Gallery twists traditions in ‘Heads or Tails’

Kat Minerath, Contributing writer

It’s that time of year when we think a lot about traditions — maybe involving music, cookies or ceramics. Ceramics? Well, yes, if you are Portrait Society Gallery.

The gallery is hosting its second annual ceramics exhibition, along with a vibrant solo installation by Della Wells, 2016 Milwaukee Artist of the Year.

Titled Heads or Tails, the ceramics show has a couple of stipulations. First, the work is (mostly) portraits or animals. Still, there’s a lot of leeway and some works bridge the space between, as with a series of charming mermaid figures.

But more interestingly, about half of the artists are not trained ceramicists. They do other kinds of art, such as painting or drawing, but embraced the challenge — with a tangible sense of fun — to explore an unfamiliar form of art making.

More than 30 artists are part of this show. Their pieces are in two galleries, arranged on pedestals and low plinths covered with arrays of delightful objects. There are some functional pieces like coffee mugs and vases — complete with plants by John Riepenhoff.

Other works are also recognizable, like a red devilish mask that seems to have popped right out of artist Fred Stonehouse’s paintings.

Sculptor Demitra Copoulos presents a spot-on, larger-than-life portrait bust of fellow artist Francis Ford.

Then there are the vintage pieces by James “Son Ford” Thomas (1926–1994), who created striking, talismanic heads, animals and skulls out of Mississippi earth.

Coupling 3D with 2D

Claire Loder, a U.K.-based artist, has a special fascination with making sculptural heads. From her studio, located “on a windy hill between Bristol and Bath,” comes a collection of ovoid faces, some with bases that look even a bit like feet, but all with quizzical eyes and thoughtful gazes. Many are speckled with dots or other painted markings, and often accompanied by ink drawings that echo their quiet directness. They embody a strange sort of balance between play and stillness.

A similar combination of three-dimensional objects and their two-dimensional counterparts marks the work by Steve Burnham. Sort of. The selection of paintings by Burnham are not exactly flat — they mix up media, expand the painted surface with layers of materials and thick impasto, and even the canvas supports are destabilized through piecing and taping. Accompanying these paintings are small ceramic vessels in pairs on shelves below. They are propped up like bubbly, colorful, peering eyes. Apparently, the art enjoys looking at you as much as you enjoy staring at it.

Steve Burnham
Installation of work by Steve Burnham.

On a more reserved note is Michael Newhall’s Monk Heads installation. This is a series of sumi ink drawings on rice paper, inspired by his continued residency in the Jikoji Zen Center in Los Gatos, California. Twenty-one pieces are shown together in a comfortable grid, and each displays a different way of working through the possibilities of creating a face or human form. Some are dense and dark, others lighter and deftly brushed, but each is curious and complex in its details. They have something of a Zen spirit, as attentiveness reveals and opens these works.

Dolls with power and possibility

A solo exhibition by Della Wells is featured in a third gallery space. It echoes some of the aspects of Heads or Tails but ultimately expands into other directions and narratives. Wells is an accomplished artist known for her collages and drawings, and in this installation — titled Alice’s Tea Party and Other Musings of a Little Colored Girl — she has created a community of about 150 hand-painted fabric dolls. They lounge on sofas, shelves and the floor as they gather for a tea party or other adventures that come to the imagination.

For Wells, the project reaches back to her childhood. She loved to play with dolls, and notes that they also carried subtle messages. In her exhibition text, she says, “As an African-American girl growing up during the 1950s and 1960s the message was clear (though I did not realize it at the time): the role of a woman was to be pretty for their man and take care of her family. Toys made for little girls at the time period taught girls how to fill these roles when they became adults by modeling image and behavior.”

Wells also describes how her dolls were white, many with blond hair, until her aunt presented her with a black doll, a powerful gesture because, “having this doll was an acknowledgement that I too was beautiful and had value.”

In the exhibition, the dolls have a variety of skin tones, hairstyles, and dresses, as well as accessories. They are made of cloth, continuing a tradition that goes back to the mid-19th century. The dolls are decorated with paint and additional materials like buttons and yarn. Some carry real objects, like the tall doll dressed in orange on the couch. She holds a small teapot, as though ready to entertain her gathered friends. Others have small bags or purses, and many include attached notes. Although such doll-making is an old tradition, Wells creates characters with a contemporary sense of power and possibility.

Wells will be present for an artist’s talk at 2 p.m. Dec. 18 at Portrait Society Gallery. Works from both exhibitions are available for purchase.

On exhibit

Heads or Tails and Alice’s Tea Party and Other Musings of a Little Colored Girl continue through Dec. 23 at Portrait Society Gallery, fifth floor, 207 E. Buffalo St., Milwaukee. For more, go online to portraitsocietygallery.com