The family portrait by nature is something known, recognizable and readable. Traditionally the subjects are posed and the visual territory is mapped out for the participants and the viewers. It memorializes a moment in time so that it will stay alive in the memories of all of the family members portrayed.
In the group exhibition, Unfamiliar, family portraiture is dissected and manipulated until it manifests other narratives outside of the ideal. Each of the artists featured in the exhibition question both the concept and the outcome of the family portrait. They do not represent a memory that the family can share. Their works reveal dysfunction in the tradition of imagery and documentation, perhaps showing a more honest appraisal of the family unit they are depicting.
Carey Denniston’s work, Records II, is a meditation on the life of her father. After he died, she found his work logs among his things, with pages of esoteric notes. Denniston made photograms from the work logs, creating an inverse of the original, turning the work notes into unreadable clues to his daily life. In contrast, Allison Maletz depicts unity and closeness in her sound piece Cheek to Cheek (Family Portrait) and her painting Totem Pole. In the former, Maletz records different family members individually singing the Irving Berlin song “Cheek to Cheek”. She then layers each individual rendition so that it becomes a chorus sung all together. The result – while showing absolute togetherness – is both dissonant and alienating; their voices in unison but they are not hearing or listening. Again this is consistent with a known concept of family but undermines the preserved and idealized family portrait.
Nikolai Ishchuk uses the traditions of photography and the family snapshot in his series Offset, but as the title suggests, each photograph has been manipulated so that the image is shifted from its center, and thereby upset, suggestive of a less harmonious narrative. To emphasize this, Ishchuk matches each photograph with an image depicting monochromatic interstitial space, highlighting the gap rather than the family unit.
With each of the artists there is a feeling of excavation in terms of what a family is made of and what it becomes. In Jackie Mock’s works this is portrayed literally. She shows her family unit through their teeth – the last vestige of physical human remains. By collating the wisdom teeth of her brother, her own milk teeth from childhood, a gold cap belonging to her mother and placing them in a raccoon skull (again denoting the digging up of remains) she is preserving their physicality as well as the memories attached. Whilst being material and fixed, the piece reflects back on memory and oscillates in the realm of family and portraiture.
In Unfamilar, each artist explores the area between closeness and dissonance in families and how far the concept of portraiture goes to explaining that. Their works reveal the gap between the known and the jarringly surreal until we as the viewer end up on unfamiliar terrain.