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Review: Melba Price’s portraits of youthful promise

Melba Price
Courtesy of Midway Contemporary Art
Untitled piece by Melba Price, gouache on paper, 12.5″ x 16.5,” 2008.

It’s strange to see “RAPTURE — Melba Price,” the new show of portraits at Midway Contemporary Art, so soon after walking through the ballyhooed Elizabeth Peyton exhibition at the Walker. That we have two buzz-worthy happenings showcasing painted portraiture — not a particularly sexy pursuit in contemporary art these days — on view at the same time is, itself, notable.

But the differences between the two artists’ shows, their divergent sensibilities and angles of approach, are far more striking than anything they share. The affectionate, gently amused gaze Melba Price brings to her motley assortment of fresh-faced teenage and 20-something subjects couldn’t be further removed from Peyton’s caustic youth-culture devotion and its dissipated androgyny.

“RAPTURE,” Price’s first exhibition in the Twin Cities since 1999, represents a new direction for the acclaimed Minnesota artist (recipient of both the Bush and McKnight Foundation fellowships). The composition and size of the portraits on view — a series of more than 50 faces, all 12.5 inches by16.5 inches, in gouache on paper — are immediately evocative of entertainment-industry head shots. The subjects are all unknown to the artist, painted from anonymous images selected from online stock photography databases. As you wander through the gallery, the portraits, seen together, offer a taxonomy of youth.

The representative types are universally familiar: the viciously funny brunette you’ve been friends with since nursery school, the piggy mouth-breather who beat you senseless in sixth grade; the bookish girl in pigtails and horn-rims who chews incessantly on her lower lip; the self-conscious anarchist lipping a cigarette; a pink-haired girl with a painful-looking nose ring whose punk aspirations seem at odds with her rosy cheeks and open smile.

But Price’s portraits transcend “type,” too. Each face feels individually ensouled, quite a feat given the nameless sterility of her source material.

The paintings themselves are luminous — awash with luscious, cheery hues and finely textured by whimsical drips and bubbles of pigment. Price’s play with color and light, opacity and transparency, is masterful. Price’s kids (and they do look like kids) — whether they’re hipsters or fresh from the farm, urban gangstas or suburban prom queens, affluent or just scraping by — shine with vulnerability and wholesome promise.

“RAPTURE” is unabashedly and refreshingly tender, but you need to see these paintings in person. Digital reproductions simply don’t do the delicacy of the work justice.

RAPTURE — Melba Price” will be on view at Midway Contemporary Art in Minneapolis through March 21.

Comments (1)

  1. Submitted by Scott Lloyd Anderson on 02/27/2009 - 09:45 am.

    With all due respect to Susannah’s review, as well as Melba’s earnest painting efforts, I’m compelled to raise an important issue. The use of the photographic reference used by Melba for her paintings was not even mentioned in the review. As far as I know, Melba didn’t take the photos she used for her portraits (disregard this comment if I’m mistaken!). Melba did not choose the subjects, she didn’t interview them, she didn’t arrange or pose or light their faces. She didn’t wade through many images to pick the one that best expresses the subject or her idea about the subject. Melba picked out some photos out of a magazine or the internet and stylized them according to the way she handles paint. Susannah reads far more into the paintings than what Melba should get credit for. Melba made choices to evoke certain ideas to be sure, but her paintings aren’t of subjects she personally knows or has interviewed. The paintings are nice enough, but Melba’s references needs to be noted by herself and reviewers, much like a writer acknowledges his/her sources.

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