PORTLAND, Maine - Two concepts, faces and familiarity, define two very different photography shows currently at the Portland Museum of Art. “Making Faces: Photographic Portraits of Actors and Artists’’ runs through April 8. “Tanja Alexia Hollander: Are You Really My Friend?’’ runs through June 17.
“Making Faces’’ is a bit of a grab bag, really. Artists and actors don’t exactly have the strongest affinity, visual or otherwise. It’s an agreeable grab bag, though, as you might expect of a show that includes multiple images from the likes of Berenice Abbott, Robert Doisneau, and Philippe Halsman.
The show consists of 45 portraits, in two groups, almost all of them drawn from the museum’s holdings. Both groups include works of art in other media - sculpture, paintings, prints - by the artists in the portraits. Almost all of those works are drawn from the museum’s holdings, too.
A few photographers have one or two portraits in the first group. Louise Nevelson has yet to achieve Gorgon grande dame status in Dan Budnik’s picture of her. Greg Gorman’s Andy Warhol looks very sleek in leather and shades. But most of the portraits come from Halsman (10) and Doisneau (nine).
The punning title of “Making Faces’’ is intentional. Some of the pictures are pretty funny. Barbara Morgan, celebrated for her dance photographs (the show includes two of her images of Martha Graham in performance), shows Ansel Adams, wearing a suit and tie, leaping atop a stool. Doisneau poses Pablo Picasso in such a way that his hands appear to be small loaves of bread.
Sometimes the wit is curatorial. Abbott’s famous portrait of Eugene Atget hangs next to Todd Watts’s portrait of Abbott. It’s a study in white: the sitter’s hair, her shirt, the counter her elbows rest on. This nicely chimes with the picture next to it, a Budnik portrait of David Smith that shows the sculptor in the snow (another study in whiteness) outside his Bolton’s Landing studio. Next to that we find Abbott’s famous portrait of Edward Hopper seated next to a stove and fireplace. No wintry cold for him!
Halsman provides the actors of the subtitle, all of them comic (Eddie Cantor, Jimmy Durante, Cantinflas, Jacques Tati, Imogene Coca, Tony Randall, Ray Bolger) and most of them mugging for the camera.
Do pictures of clowns need to be clownish, though? Adams leaping for the camera is funny, not least of all because the act comes so unnaturally to him. Lucille Ball mugging for the camera and looking slatternly or Milton Berle attempting a card trick isn’t really funny, since it’s simply more of the same.
The second section of “Making Faces’’ is a kind of visual call and response. A dozen of David Etnier’s photographic portraits of Maine-based or Maine-associated artists are accompanied by a work each from the artist. This is a bit unfair to the photographs, since the adjacent art tends to take visual precedence. Further stacking the deck is the fact that none of the artists has the kind of recognizability that would let the photographs balance the painting or print alongside it. That’s true even when the artwork isn’t as striking as, say, Linden Frederick’s oil “Seagull Motel.’’ These photographs are one case where familiarity would breed content.
What could be more familiar than your friends? Except that Facebook, having turned the word into a verb, has made the concept so elastic as to lose meaning. This alteration provides the inspiration for “Tanja Alexia Hollander: Are You Really My Friend?’’
Facebook is and isn’t about friendship. How many of your “friends’’ do you even know? More to the point, it’s definitely not about images. The face you choose to present to the Facebook world is a kind of social resume. It can include an image, or images, yes; but also name, employer, academic background, all that other stuff in your profile.
The original Facebook, the Harvard Freshman Register, was about images. It was like a high school yearbook with this crucial difference: It looked forward rather than backward. Not a few future power couples had their origin in one party scoping out the other’s picture in “the facebook.’’
What Hollander has done is use the facial aspect of Facebook friendship as her point of departure. Since January 2011, she’s been engaged in an ongoing project: to go to where her Facebook friends live and photograph them. That’s a lot of traveling. She has more than 600 friends.
The results are on display at the museum in two sections. One consists of a long horizontal strip of 61 portraits pinned to the wall - unframed, giving them a casual, immediate look. Around the corner, there are several dozen more photos. They have a magnetized backing, and viewers are encouraged to arrange them on the wall as they like. It’s interactivity of the old-fashioned, dimensional sort - literally hands-on.
The photographs are in color, shot indoors and in natural light. The interest they afford is more conceptual and sociological than visual, though that interest proves to be limited. While Facebook provides Hollander with an armature for her project, that project really doesn’t offer much in the way of commentary on or insight into social media. As for sociology, sameness limits its utility. The people appear comfortable, both socially and economically. A gathering of Walmart customers this isn’t.
Hollander’s sitters are in the 99 percent, all right, but the part that considers itself culturally and morally superior to the 1 percent. They may well be right in assuming so. For that matter, you and I (the sort of person who writes art reviews and the sort of person who reads them) are likely in this same social sub-stratum. But pretty soon the realization dawns that that means you’re looking into a lot more mirrors than windows. Facebook, Facebook, on the screen, who’s the fairest on the scene? The question answers itself, which is one reason Mark Zuckerberg’s so rich.
MAKING FACES: Photographic Portraits of Actors and Artists
TANJA ALEXIA HOLLANDER: Are You Really My Friend?
At: Portland (Maine) Museum of Art, through April 8 and June 17, respectively. 207-775-6148, www.portlandmuseum.orgMark Feeney can be reached at email@example.com.