Mary Porterfield’s ability to elegantly render the loss of independence, a heartbreaking temporal and kinesthetic displacement, is clearly the result of years of deep respect, observation and connection with those whom she is a caretaker. Some drawings depict Porterfield’s own grandmother, and in the face of this woman one can see the fading of a formidable presence, a strength broken by degenerative illness, an echo of what she once was.
An occupational therapist, Porterfield draws with oils on layered glassine, and each mark reads as a breath of compassion for her subjects. In “Alice Begins,” a trinity of faces appear atop one another, with eyes cast in different directions and mouths plaintively set with slightly parted lips. The woman depicted seems lost from her own body map, ghosted by her own consciousness. The impression is almost of blindness, the head moving back and forth in space to hear the world around her, asking the question: “Where am I?” A profound loss of self feels evident, perhaps asking the more difficult questions of: “Who and what am I?”
Porterfield is an advocate artist of the highest order, bringing to mind the powerful work of Chicagoan Riva Lehrer. And while both artists speak eloquently on disability, Porterfield’s voice shares volumes about ageism. Common practice relegates the elderly to forgotten places, closed off from society at large, which perpetuates a dangerous loss of history and connection with our selves. A series of six gorgeous drawings of hands struggling to write, to open a bottle of medication, to hold a spoon, feel like metaphors on the importance of maintaining this connection. We are raised and taught by generations before us. They serve as examples and inspirations, and their hands guide us into our own futures. As those hands whither, so do our links to what came before. Porterfield holds those hands close, cherishes the thin skin and shakiness, and reminds us that growing old is one of the more difficult journeys we will hopefully all be fortunate enough to undertake. (Damien James)
Mary Porterfield: In:Dependence, Hofheimer Gallery, 4823 North Damen, through September 28.