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Faces of the South in Greensboro

by Amy Kingsley

An eerie sensation descends upon entering the Green Hill Center’s latest exhibit, Facing South. It’s a watched feeling, a sense of being observed.

The looks come from across the room – a series of large silver gelatin prints, each of which has a single subject staring into the camera. If you stand just past the point where photographer Linda Foard Roberts would have stood when she took these photographs, you can feel all the eyes converging.

Twenty artists from across the state contributed photographs, paintings and sculptures to this survey of portraiture. There are those who took the assignment literally, like Roberts and Beverly McIver, and others with a more whimsical interpretation of their subjects.

I’m talking about Fritz Janschka, who’s got an entire corner devoted to his takes on famous literary and philosophical types. His “Portrait of MH Auden” is a papier maché figurine, a boxy doll with words spilling out of its chest. Next to it stands a portrait of Fred Chappell, the noted local poet, sketched with pencil and fashioned into a cylinder with a real bowtie affixed. He looks like Humpty Dumpty.

There’s a girl who walks in and says, in hushed tones, “The Greensboro Four.” Their busts dominate the middle of the floor. James Barnhill provided those, they’re mockups from the sculpture commissioned by NC A&T University. The artist snuck in a small bronze statue of himself, roughly the size of a small trophy, behind the four Civil Rights pioneers.

Betty Watson, a longtime friend of the gallery, provided portraits of her family and “Woman with Bangs and Pearls, 1950s” – oil paintings that could be hung over a manor fireplace.

There are people posing, people working, people playing and people consuming. No work demonstrates that last activity quite as clearly as three pieces by Leo Morrissey. He arranged parallel lines of Apollinaris bottles, baguette and San Pelligrino. In his other works, Morrissey carved his profile into several books.

As it has with everything else, the fight for the Democratic presidential nomination has invaded this space too. Pamela Crist’s photographs of Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton in Selma, Ala. show the candidates enveloped in crowds, fixed in political amber.

There are plenty of average people too. Artie Dixon shows framed photos of punks, nerds, daughter and mothers. Anne Kesler Shields assembled dozens of small paintings of Samaritan Inn residents into a survey of faces partitioned by cardboard.

The there are the McIver paintings hung in the airy room near the front. McIver’s work chronicles her own life and those of her neighbors. There’s a self-portrait that dates back to high school, when she belonged to Grimsley’s Clown Club and hid her blackness under layers of grease paint. There’s a big top quality in all of her paintings; she exaggerates the lines and skin tones with bold strokes of blue, red and yellow. Her portraits include pictures of family members, a haberdasher and herself.

You can learn a lot from faces, but maybe not enough. Artist Carolyn Demerritt followed 10 girls over the course of four years for her video project “When I was Little… I Thought I Could Fly.” A slideshow of the girls’ portraits accompanies voiceover narration from each of the subjects. It’s absorbing, I could have spent half an hour staring at the screen.

This particular exhibit isn’t as encompassing as the Green Hill’s last, the Printed exhibition that was almost impossible to absorb in one sitting.

Depending on your tolerance for surveillance, Facing South is a show you could duck into on your way to the park or spend an entire afternoon with.

To comment on this story, e-mail Amy Kingsley at amy@yesweekly.com.

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