How many faces (besides your own in the mirror) have you laid eyes on in the past year? 2020 is over and it's time to look again, so we're pleased to present "Face Forward," an exhibition opening February 1. It is an opportunity to focus on the diversity of portraiture and figurative works we have in our collection, as well as feature new acquisitions that you have not seen on campus before.
In her 2020 book, "Stranger Faces" — more specifically, in her introduction, titled "Look at Me," a perfect springboard for an exhibition of portraiture — Namwali Serpell describes the face as "fundamental to how we understand ourselves. The face means identity, truth, feeling, beauty, authenticity, humanity." (She specifies that her work is focused on faces of the human animal, not other animals.) As each of us is an individual with our own thoughts and opinions — the unique workings in the mysterious realm behind our own face — the faces we encounter invariably strike each of us at different points along the limitless spectrum of each of those phenomena. It's a fool's errand to either pose or attempt to answer questions like "what is 'truth'?;" "what is 'beauty'?" It is not so pointless, however, to ponder the questions more personally: what are such things to you? How is your answer to such conundra affected when viewing an art exhibition, in which identity, truth, feeling, beauty, authenticity, and humanity have been filtered for your delectation through the perceptions, actions and productions of artists?
According to Serpell, the face that satisfies all criteria for identity, truth, feeling, beauty, authenticity, and humanity might be called the Ideal Face (or, to more pragmatic eyes, the Generic Face), which of course, does not exist in reality. Forsaking the ideal generic for the idiosyncratic particular, the artists assembled here provide an example of a richness and diversity that may inspire us to deeper understanding, even empathy, for the lives behind the faces we encounter even among those we will never know more fully. What we give up in the definitive we gain in the additive, the inconclusive, even the fugitive. Full frontal, side eye, or a parting glance: Out of one, many.
However else you define beauty, one of the many beauties of works of art at the Grinnell College Museum of Art is that, while they pose many complex questions, answers are not required as a price of admission. We've just endured (alas, continue to endure) one of the most harrowing experiences in our collective memory, and while many of us may be eager for a critic's or philosopher's challenge, others are seeking simpler pleasures: comfort, respite, or the chance to return the gaze of a maskless face.