Over the past decade, Mary Borgman has done one thing, and done it well: monumental, six-foot-high charcoal portraits of handsome, multi-ethnic young dudes, often with their shirts off, set against a glowing background. These are young adults in that exciting, though sometimes dangerous period of self-discovery before settling into the responsibilities of family and career, and the artist shares the thrill of staring into their emerging selves.
Each drawing is based upon a single photograph, selected from many others, taken under controlled conditions in her studio. So, why not just make sixty-foot photographic prints? Why take two to four months to finish each charcoal drawing? One part of the answer is that photographic forms feel cold and factual, while drawn forms can be warm and alive. Another is that hundreds of hours of concentrated focus can give pieces a sense of overwhelming, leap-off-the-wall presence that a momentary shutter flick can never achieve. Although similar, each pose/personality presents a different challenge. Her second version of Kaveh Razani is one of the most compelling pieces she’s ever done.
There’s an upbeat spirit to this project. Borgman has taken charcoal, the simplest, most ancient of marking materials, and made something as fresh and exciting as the emerging lives of her subjects. And the ethnic diversity she portrays has a “we are the world” enthusiasm far more engaging than Malvina Hoffman’s anthropological statuary at the Field Museum. But just as we would like promising youth to develop into mature achievement, there is also something missing in these portraits. Borgman’s sense of form is soft and puffy and her volumes don’t assert themselves into space. You can tell that she’s spent more time drawing photographs rather than walking her mind around actual three-dimensional objects. The results feel more like a personal romantic fantasy and less like a sharp look at reality or a profound idealism, making her subjects feel more like boy-toys and less like men. Depictions of strong, effective, healthy men disappeared from the late twentieth-century American art that needed to distinguish itself from the heavy-handed propaganda of the totalitarian states and its own mass marketing. They haven’t yet returned, but Borgman has taken us several steps closer. (Chris Miller)
Through January 28 at Ann Nathan Gallery, 212 West Superior