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New Blanton exhibit explores human form

Jeanne Claire Van Ryzin, Seeing Things

Staff Writer
Austin 360

We are endlessly interested in ourselves.

Scientists believe that an ivory sculpture of a woman found in Europe dates to 40,000 years ago and is perhaps the oldest known depiction of the human form.

Since the time that figurine was made, arguably we've not grown tired of artistically experimenting with new ways of portraying ourselves.

That much is certainly evident in "The Human Touch," an exhibit on view at the Blanton Museum of Art through Aug. 12.

The 43 works of contemporary art in the show represent about one-tenth of the corporate collection assembled by RBC Wealth Management, a Minneapolis-based investment firm with an office in Austin. The focus of the corporation's collection is the human figure.

Given that this is a collection of post-war, mostly two-dimensional art (paintings, works on paper, photographs), there are the usual suspects: Chuck Close and Robert Longo.

Close and Longo made their mark in the trajectory of portraiture playing with scale and profile — Close with his massively scaled paintings that mimic photographic attributes, Longo with his writhing business suit-clad bodies in black and white.

But taken as a whole, this assemblage of art made in the past 20 to 30 years suggests that exploring human identity trumps more traditional artistic courses of representing the human form.

Forget the preoccupation with how accurately or poetically a body is portrayed in an idealized fashion. Ethnicity, culture, religion, politics and media representation are the lenses through which artists in this exhibit examine humankind in the world.

Though RBC collection officials initially put the exhibit together, Blanton curator Risa Puleo was invited to have a hand in the selection, and she chose some works that nicely dovetail with the Blanton's own collection.

Among Puleo's selections are a striking 7-foot-long graphite drawing by Houston-based Mequitta Ahuja. (The artist was the subject of solo exhibit in 2010 at Arthouse, the Congress Avenue contemporary arts center that has since merged with the Austin Museum of Art.) Ahuja creates self-portraits that plumb the cultural complexity of her African American and South Asian heritage. In "Charmer," long streaming locks of hair flow from a woman's head, the hair transformed into snakes.

Puleo also selected a painting by Kehinde Wiley, who collapses — and subverts — the entire history of portrait paintings in his images of hip-hop figures in heroic poses akin to Renaissance masterworks.

Likewise, Kerry James Marshall draws on a broad range of art historical traditions and references, fusing everything from Renaissance painting to black folk art to describe the African American tradition. And Jane Hammond appropriates vintage pop culture images to examine cultural clichés. Chen Qiulin represents the rapidly changing society in China. Frank Big Bear Jr. and Jaune Quick-To-See Smith offer Native American perspectives.

In so much of the artwork in this show, the politics of identity takes center stage.

The human body? Not so much.

Filling the brochure racks at the Blanton's visitor desk are copies of a colorful announcement of the museum's 2012-13 season. In brief, here's the upcoming schedule:

"The Rules of Basketball." What a pairing: Paul Pfeiffer's sculptural video installations exploring pro sports as spectacle along with the original document bearing the rules of basketball. Sept. 16-Jan. 13

"Into the Sacred City: Tibetan Buddhist Deities from the Theos Collection Bernard Collection." Sept. 16-Jan. 13. Rare mandalas and scroll paintings form the centerpiece of this exhibit.

"Restoration & Revelation: Conserving the Suida-Manning Collection." Nov. 17-May 5. An in-depth look at how the Renaissance and Baroque masterworks of the Suida-Manning Collection are preserved.

"Through the Eyes of Texas: Masterworks from Alumni Collections." Feb. 24-May 19, 2013. How to acknowledge — and measure — 50 years of the university museum and its influence? Take a look at what art alumni have chosen to collect.

Contact Jeanne Claire van Ryzin at jvanryzin@statesman.com or 445-3699

The Human Touch: Selections from the RBC Wealth Management Art Collection