Jenny Poetzel: Self-Portraits

at the Contemporary Art Workshop, through January 21

Juan Jose Molina: Mitomania

at Aldo Castillo, through February 1

Many of us go through a period of mirror gazing in adolescence, of wondering who we are and what we’ll become, perhaps incited by a changing appearance at once familiar and strange. So it’s no surprise when art students and recent art school graduates focus on self-portraits. Ten paintings and drawings at the Contemporary Art Workshop by Jenny Poetzel, who received her MFA from the School of the Art Institute in 2001, don’t bring anything conceptually new to the genre but combine humor with a technique that makes vivid the instability of the young self, a notion also embodied in the myth of Narcissus.

A Chicagoan born in Milwaukee in 1976, Poetzel first came up with the idea of including two self-portraits in a single image as an undergraduate; she’s been doing multiple as well as single self-portraits ever since. She’s present in triplicate in Self-Portrait: reclining in a skirt and top, sitting in a slip, and as a single head poking up from behind a wooden barrier or wall as if spying on the other two. Seeing the same person in different poses and wearing different clothing within a single composition implies simultaneity–that Poetzel can flip between alternate personas instantly.

While Self-Portrait is unified partly by its palette of browns, Self-Portrait (After Manet) includes more diverse colors, held together in a dynamic tension that reflects two of Poetzel’s early influences, Richard Diebenkorn and Henri Matisse. Using Manet’s A Bar at the Folies-Bergere as a model, Poetzel stands with her hands on a long table before a mirror, like the woman in the Manet but without

the startling male reflection. Various repetitions unify the work: the doubling effect of the mirror, which duplicates the cosmetics bottles on the table; the lamps at either side; the different shades of blue at either side, which seem to balance each other. But more, Poetzel manages to catch the strange quality of some Matisse paintings in which every color feels as if it’s linked to every other, almost as if each “knows” the others are there. Trapped by the mirror and the shallow space, the figure seems just another array of colors, her autonomy undercut in a way that denies the usual ethos of the self-portrait.

Wrestling With the Angel introduces a more dramatic contrast by adding a pair of brightly colored striped wings to Poetzel’s figure, which is characteristically fuzzy. The angel is one of three self-portraits here; another figure grasps the angel’s feet while a third in the background carries a flower. That the wings are the brightest, most precisely painted elements suggests that Poetzel’s sense of identity is far less developed than her angelic ideal.

Narcissus, based on the Caravaggio painting of the same name, replaces his pool of water with a round mirror. The curves of Poetzel’s hair, shoulders, and legs echo the shape of the mirror she grasps, creating a spiraling vertigolike effect, as if the mirror were a whirlpool beckoning the figure toward oblivion. Here the trap of narcissism becomes evident: regarding the self looking at the self to the exclusion of all else negates the rest of the world and leads to inner emptiness.

Several of Juan Jose Molina’s 11 black-and-white paintings at Aldo Castillo contain multiple, almost identical male figures, though they’re not self-portraits; multiple female figures appear as well. These pieces exude a strangeness, a sense of the oddness of the figure, even more unsettling than Poetzel’s questioning of the self-portrait. The difference is that Molina takes not the human form but the contemplation of imagery as his subject, understanding it to be a contemporary dilemma: in an interview he once said, “Today, man is killing man converting him into an image.”

Giving the exhibit its name is the ten-panel Mitomania (“Mythomania”), which is more than 40 feet wide. It vividly conveys the sense that humans’ physical existence is weird in itself: dozens of nude clonelike figures, some crouching or cowering in apparent fear, seem to have lost their in-dependence and individ-uality. Repeated portraits of a sleepwalker, plus other images surrounded by white borders as if they were giant photographs, hang behind the foreground figures. Even when clustered together these people seem strangely isolated, looking out toward the viewer rather than interacting with one another, as if aware that they’re images to be regarded rather than autonomous beings.

An essay by Ricardo Pau-Uosa (available in the gallery) offers a detailed analysis of this piece as an allegory “documenting the process from war to peace.” But the dog straining on its leash at the right and the nude couple embracing at the left could support other readings as well. The foreground figures replicate the look of black-and-white photos, conveying the same feeling of unreality as Molina’s sleepwalker photos. Indeed his central concern seems to be the way the images we make of ourselves distance us from our fundamental natures–a postmodern dilemma in which everything is reduced to an image. This leads to an emptiness not unlike what Poetzel confronts in some of her self-portraits.

That theme is also evident in Molina’s smaller single-panel works. Arboles (“Trees”) depicts two photos of a single tree hung side by side. The trees look identical–or are there small differences between them due to imperfections in the “photos” or to variations in Molina’s painting? Horizontal brush marks make clear that these are paintings but are so heavy as to also suggest streaks in photos. Can we distinguish variations in nature from variations in our perceptions or representations of it? Molina expands the idea of entrapment in the self to the notion that our image-saturated culture entraps us. In Beso II (“Kiss II”) a nude couple embracing is surrounded by three photos of trees positioned like three sides of a box. Here the traditional bucolic background for paintings of lovers becomes repeated black-and-white images of what may be the same tree, as if nature had one lone survivor visible only in a photo.

Born in Colombia in 1962 and now living in Madrid, Molina says that his current style is in part inspired by X-ray images of his earlier paintings, and some of his oddly transparent figures do suggest that reference. But they also hint at photographic negatives–the figures cast white shadows–and infrared photography since the flesh has an odd glow. These references to multiple photographic modes create a sense of instability, undercutting the traditional notion that a photo bears a closer relationship to actuality than a painting: photographic images vary too. Given the loneliness of Molina’s trees and apparent isolation of his figures, it seems the very act of image making has alienated us from nature and from one another. It’s as if Molina were offering advice to other painters that he cannot take himself: stop looking at yourself, stop making images for a while, take a walk outdoors, look at some real trees and the sky.