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Large-scale portraits show artists' intimate lives

DAMASO REYES | 4/12/2011, 4:44 p.m.
Detail of Alphonse van Woerkom's portrait of artist Faith Ringgold (Damaso Reyes photos)

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Alphonse van Woerkom's portrait of Sam Gilliam (Damaso Reyes photos)

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Alphonse van Woerkom's portrait of Fred Wilson (Damaso Reyes photos)

Portraits are among the most challenging pieces that an artist can create. Making an image that not only communicates something about your subject but also creates a relationship between viewer and subject is something most artists spend a lifetime trying to master. In his latest show, "Face Value," now on view at the Sragow Gallery, artist Alphonse van Woerkom's larger-than-life portraits of some of America's leading artists, including several African-Americans, show us just how intimate a portrait can be.

"I'm creating a space that is very intense; I'm trying to get beyond the facade," van Woerkom said in an interview at the gallery where more than a dozen of his works, measuring between six by six and six by eight feet, hang in close proximity to one another. The small gallery creates a very confined space in which visitors are forced to stand no more than three or four feet from one of the portraits.

These already oversized portraits, roughly done in charcoal and black and white pastels, take on an increased urgency when viewed so closely. The lines and crosshatching, while rough, offer a surprising level of detail. We see stray hairs and the particular curl of a mouth. The artists represented come from a number of different backgrounds and traditions but what holds them all together is the humanity that van Woerkom so convincingly portrays.

His portrait of Faith Ringgold speaks of an authority and gravity that suits her status. She is an elder among artists, and this delicate yet strong interpretation of her gives us all that history. The artist's image of John Baldessari shows us a puckish man whose humor than not been dulled by the years. Van Woerkom's diptych of Ida Applebroog with her eyes both open and closed is incredibly haunting.

The artist spent several hours with each subject, none of whom he knew very well before he began the project. Creating small drawings and taking reference photos, he then created these huge portraits which defy easy categorization. This show is well worth seeing if you're interested in going beyond the surface.

"Face Value" is on view until April 9 at the Sragow Gallery, located at 153 W. 27th St. Gallery hours are Tuesday-Saturday from 1-6 p.m. For more information, call (2120 219-1793 or visit www.sragowgallery.com.