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Stare master: a self-portrait by Susanna Coffey.

Face It
By David Brickman

Susanna Coffey: Self-Portraits
The College of Saint Rose Art Gallery, through Dec. 8

Rembrandt did it. Gauguin and Van Gogh did it. Probably every art student and former art student on the planet has done it. And Susanna Coffey has built a career out of it: looking at herself in the mirror and painting a portrait.

But don’t be fooled by appearances. It is neither easy nor facile to do what Coffey, through stalwart commitment, masterful technique and deep reflection, has managed to accomplish as a contemporary artist. In a postmodern world, where representational painters have usually been put down in favor of conceptualists, she stands between the proverbial rock and hard place, making traditional art that also holds up intellectually.

Twenty-one of the New York City-based artist’s paintings are on view at the College of Saint Rose Art Gallery; all but a few of the pieces are unframed oils on linen or panel, and they are modest in size, ranging from 8 inches by 10 inches to 20 inches by 18 inches. Of the few framed works on paper, there are a handful of similarly sized monotypes, and two much larger pieces in oil paint, makeup and pastel (yes, face makeup).

The gray-walled Saint Rose gallery is ideal for artwork of this intimacy—really large pieces simply couldn’t fit there—and the paintings inhabit the room the way characters in a play fill the stage: strongly present but each leaving enough room for the other characters to speak and the audience to react. And these paintings are in fact characters, all representing different facets of Coffey, or personages she has created through projection.

What are they saying?

According to the artist, all appearances are mutable: The more we look, the more identity may seem to change. Rather than try to capture a crystal-clear moment in her paintings (like a photograph, perhaps), Coffey builds up layers of impressions over time, thereby recording these subtle transformations.

At first glance, the figures in the paintings all seem similarly unembellished. But the more you look, the more small variations take on importance: natural or artificial light, from above, below or both sides; the addition or removal of a scarf; hair up, down or braided; with earrings or sunglasses or strongly colored makeup; with backgrounds lush or plain, indoors or out; even the color of the mirror the artist views herself in changes.

What doesn’t change is the pose: face-front, mostly cropped at the neck, in many cases with chin thrust out (defiantly?) or seen from slightly below so that the face tilts away from the picture plane; often, a bit of chest and shoulders can be seen, usually naked (but clearly not “nude”). The heads are pushed strangely to the bottom edge of the canvas, only one or two life-size or bigger, the rest quite small.

So, what is she saying?

Perhaps I would do better to instead write, What is she asking?

The unanswerable, age-old questions, of course: Who are we? Where do we come from? Where are we going?

Coffey asks these same questions over and over, while painting the same picture over and over. And—every time—the answer is different, the painting is different.

In less sure hands, this exercise could be a disaster, but Coffey has the skill necessary to render all the changes in mood without letting the technique get in the way. Whether using whisker-thin orange marks to capture the light on an eyelash or broad strokes for a shadow or a pointillism effect for a smudged expression, her means of execution ends up feeling necessary, not forced.

Among the most successful pieces in the show are several from 2002 (it’s always a good sign when an artist appears to be getting better with age), including the first one inside the gallery entrance, titled Self Portrait (cast). Here, a very small head casts an enormous shadow on the wall or ceiling beyond. But relief comes in the form of a pair of big, blue hoop earrings that dangle rakishly from the sides of the garishly lit face.

Like cast, a 1998 piece titled Self Portrait (Dartmouth sky lit) places a very small head beneath a large, empty space. But instead of appearing to mock us, the subject looks out lovingly, like a grandmother. A white, lacy scarf wraps this dear woman’s head and flows down over her shoulders.

Another 2002 painting, Self Portrait (holiday for night), places the artist, larger and more serene-looking this time, before a starry sky. Her headband bears stylized stars, her gaze is blue and soft. Yet another from 2002 takes the color blue as its theme, presenting a spooky visage out of a futuristic film.

Other personas hide behind mirror shades, but most of the paintings reveal the subject’s gaze, whether direct, distant or slightly averted. Ultimately, it seems to me, it’s all in the eyes. If you’re accustomed to staring at paintings to your heart’s content, be ready: These paintings stare back.


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