Faces in the Crowd Essay

Faces in the Crowd, 2017.

Faces in the Crowd, 2017.

Faces in the Crowd is the second in a series of exhibitions showcasing the latest acquisitions of figurative American art in the collection of the Polk Museum of Art at Florida Southern College (FSC). approaching the concept of the human figure and its representation in art broadly, this exhibition continue to highlight the new principal collecting focus of the Museum’s permanent collection, one that addresses American figurative art as a subject unto its own in painting, drawing, printmaking and sculpture.

In building this newly-focused collection, the Polk Museum of art strives to make itself unique among academic institutions of its kind, housing a collection that will draw attention not only for its strength on a particular theme but also as a resource for academic study of American art. With new works entering the collection practically week-by-week, the Museum’s permanent collection is growing exponentially.

The idea for developing such a collection celebrating American figuration was formulated by FSC graduate J. William Meek, III (’72) of Naples, Florida, who is Director-emeritus of the Harmon-Meek Gallery, the oldest gallery in American art in the southeast United states. For the past year, Meek has worked tirelessly to cultivate a network of collectors, artists and artist estates interested in gifting works and, in many cases, entire study collections of a single artist to the Museum. The desire to make the Museum a true didactic resource for anyone interested in studying or simply learning more about American figurative art serves as an enticement to artists and art patrons who would like their work included in this burgeoning collection.

From afar, the notion of a room - or a collection – full of works all on the theme of American figuration may seem limiting; it is exhibitions like Faces in the Crowd, however, that aim to prove otherwise. The title Faces in the Crowd hints at the diverse possibilities of the theme. In one sense, Faces in the Crowd alludes to both the potential anonymity of a given figure in American art but also at the potential specificity of a particular figure in American art. Just as we are all faces in the crowd of humanity, so too are the figures and artists who appear in this exhibition. An American president or a celebrity is as much a “face in the crowd” as the woman whose figure we may see only as a distant silhouette against a sunlit landscape.

In this way, Faces in the Crowd also refers to the artists exhibited on the gallery walls. In the show, works by better-known American artists in the Museum’s collection appear side-by-side with those of more under-sung American artists. It is through juxtapositions like these where artistic perspectives on the figure from a “recognized” artist can illuminate those of artists who are newer to the scene or have fallen more deeply into the shadows.

Accordingly, while the interplay between the works in the show is itself visually exciting, each artist whose work is featured in Faces in the Crowd looks at the human figure in his or her entirely individual way. Indeed, some figures in the show are instantly recognizable by name - think of a certain 45th president - as is the case with portraits of well-known sitters by a contemporary artist like Hunt slonem, for instance, thirty-four of whose portraits are now on long-term loan to the Museum. Other figures are recognizable in different ways, not because we as viewers know who they are by name, but rather merely by the fact that their faces are rendered crisply by their artists, thus individualizing the sitters as specific people.

Joan Konkel’s sculptural work plays off of this idea of Faces in the Crowd in a dramatic and quite literal manner. Her wall-based 2008 sculpture of a woman’s face, entitled Depth of Character, reads as a specific two-dimensional portrait when seen directly from the front, but, when approached from the side, the sculpture (and the face depicted by it) distort and project outward, literally into the viewer’s space.

Meanwhile, other “faces in the crowd” are more universalized - sometimes even face-less – offered to us by their artists as anymen or anywomen, providing common points of entry for explorations of the human condition. Artists like 20th century master Robert Vickrey - many newly-acquired examples of whose work the Museum is proud to lay claim to - make the timelessly relatable figure the explicit subject of their work.

In fact, many of Vickrey’s best-known works, like his 1986 Poster Wall, which appears in the exhibition, place figures with their backs to the viewer. In rendering his little girl in a white hat as an un-seeable “face in the crowd,” Vickrey urges us to visualize not only what she looks like but also what expression she bears on her face. On an adjacent wall, you will find artists like Reynier llanes, whose The Window appears in Faces in the Crowd, and who, like llanes, imbue their figures with deep psychological tension, propelling us to wonder what is transpiring inside their figures’ minds.

At the same time, as this exhibition makes apparent, many Faces in the Crowd are highly abstract, less approachable as “people” than as subjects of a work of art. In such cases, artists are asking the viewer to invest in the intricacies of the works’ creation, more than in any underlying story the work wishes to tell. Foundational 20th-century artists like Adolf Dehn and Balcomb Greene take the human figure as their source, but illustrate how artists in mid-20th century America wanted to find new means of artistic expression that extended beyond academic realism. Other artists like Darrel Austin – whose landscapes broach the realm of the imaginary – push you to search even to find the figure within the composition.

Faces in the Crowd thus invites viewers to imagine the stories behind the works themselves and of the figures within them, while also pushing each visitor to consider why the works were created in the ways they were and why they look the way they do.

In the end, what the exhibition hopes to convey most is that we are all Faces in the Crowd and that the theme of the figure in American art is boundless. As we continue to build the Museum’s new collecting focus, we strive to foster instructive dialogues between temporary exhibitions and our permanent collection, encouraging each viewer to uncover his or her own connections between art across time, style and medium.

H. Alexander Rich, Ph.D, 
Curator and Director of Galleries & Exhibitions
Assistant Professor of Art History
Art History Program Director
September 2017