Sometimes, the beauty is the bookends.
It would have been easy for the Ackland Art Museum to put its new exhibit of Andy Warhol Polaroids at the front of its central hall.
But by fixing Warhol’s snapshots as merely the middle portion of a three-part retrospective of portraiture, the Ackland has successfully channeled the energy surrounding Warhol’s big name into a broader analysis of the role of the individual in visual art.
The exhibits — “Big Shots,” “Counterlives” and “Enduring Likeness” — opened Friday, and though Warhol will likely remain the biggest draw for museum-goers, the two other exhibits are equally powerful.
For the Warhol collection, the Ackland partnered with the Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University and the Weatherspoon Art Museum at UNC-Greensboro.
Each museum agreed on the essential composition of the exhibit, but the layout was left to the discretion of each separate institution.
It is up to the individual viewer to decide, but the Ackland largely succeeds in its decision to create a show that doesn’t rely on Warhol.
That is not to say that the Warhol part isn’t absolutely captivating — the collection of impromptu and planned Polaroids includes candid portraits of a variety of Warhol regulars and celebrities, arranged to excellent effect.
Grainy close-ups of unknown blonde women and forlorn Santa Clauses are sprinkled throughout the exhibit, bringing a sense of uncanny anonymity to the whole room.
It quickly becomes apparent that several of these faces were used in the artist’s later commercial work.
In a single narrow hallway, “Enduring Likeness” manages to explore portraiture from the 15th century until the arrival of Warhol in the middle of the last century.
With such gems as a Dennis Stock print of James Dean and a haunting bronze bust of Adolf Hitler by Hermann Joachim Pagels, the exhibit brings the viewer closer to Warhol, ending with a trio of the artist’s own iconic screen prints.
On the other side of the galleries, “Counterlives” moves toward the modern sphere, with a diverse and moving collection of contemporary portraits.
A moody print by South African Pieter Hugo of Nigerian actor Emeka Onu sets the tone for the final exhibit, as the subject sits stoically in a formal portrait pose, seemingly oblivious to the garbage and used car parts that surround him.
The collection’s most memorable piece is Oliver Herring’s “Leon,” a three-dimensional photo collage in the form of a soldier.
An assembly of puzzle-piece-sized photos, the sculpture zooms the viewer deliberately into the life of this soldier.
And in dramatic contrast to the rest of the exhibit, the soldier — looking down at a medical field manual — is the only portrait in which the face isn’t looking outward.
But after three unsettling galleries of stares, this sculpture is a welcome relief.
Contact the Arts Editor at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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