Sean Kelly’s exhibition of 180 small scale portraits by Chinese artist Liu Wei offers an intimate and thought-provoking survey into the psychological layers of portraiture, a genre almost as archaic as art history itself. Entitled 180 Faces, the exhibition of modest scale portraits of anonymous individuals are hung akin to the style of the salon, with a twist on the traditional display fashion as the frames’ sleek surfaces blend into the gallery’s contemporary white-cube interior.
The exhibition marks firsts for both the gallery and Wei, who is showing new work for the first time in 18 years in New York, and shows for the first time with Sean Kelly. 180 Faces travels to Chelsea from Beijing, where the Ullens Center for Contemporary Art presented the series earlier this year in similar exhibition style. The impact of portraits in the series mainly stems from the artist’s presentation of these small scale works not unlike a wall installation, in which each piece complements others while conveying an overarching image on the viewer.
Placed inside elaborate, flamboyantly carved frames of white acrylic, each face poses between familiarity and obscurity, as well as between liveliness and death. Wei’s employment of charcoal, with generous smears and fluctuating tones of grey both celebrates and dismantles the portraiture genre, while questioning the role of portraiture within technology-driven contemporary art practices. The figures’ barely recognizable expressions and demure impressions, occasionally behind shattered glasses, require both attention and distance from the viewer, making any internalization or empathy for their personal narratives challenging.
The viewer’s effort to associate with these faces is also challenged by the fact that these faces do not reflect anyone particular, but emerge from Wei’s subconsciousness. “Is a portrait still a portrait if it doesn’t mimic anyone particular?” the artist asks. A meditative journey on the artist’s end, 180 Faces immerses its viewers into a realm between reality and the subliminal.
Liu Wei: 180 Faces is on view at Sean Kelly through June 16, 2018.
Sean Kelly [Exhibition Page]