By Jack Fischer
If the eyes are the windows to the soul, the face must promise much more.
And that, of course, is the enduring fascination of the portrait in art, from Tutankhamen's sarcophagus to Lucian Freud's penetrating studies of his British contemporaries. The portrait, we like to believe, is the story of the life made palpable.
The problem for artists -- or perhaps their liberation -- is that for the past 100 years or so, photography has so ably occupied so much of this terrain. Whether its offerings are objective fact or deceptive fantasy is a discussion for another day. The fact is that artists in other media have concluded that photography has freed them to pursue other concerns when they consider depicting people.
All of which brings us to ``The Portrait Obscured,'' the current exhibit at the San Jose Institute of Contemporary Art, where 19 artists have all but forgone the portrait entirely in their pursuit of it.
Or, in the estimation of ICA executive director Cathy Kimball, who curated the show, they have forgone literal portraits in pursuit of what they -- and she -- hope are essences. For the moment, suffice it to say that this is an organizing principle Kimball has shaped into a lively gathering of art that at least begins to suggest the current range of artistic practice on the subject.
The exhibit's signature pieces are two paintings by the Austrian painter Gottfried Helnwein. A bit of perceptual sleight of hand, two seemingly blue-black canvases on close inspection reveal portraits of John Lennon and Bruce Lee. Portraits obscured, to be sure, and perhaps a meditation on how unknowable are the famous by their famous faces. The works also implicitly support Kimball's contention that other means must be found.
Several of the strongest offerings explore not the ways that portrayals reveal human character, but the ways society uses portrayals to support its own wishful thinking. Two examples are Yoram Wolberger's ``Bride and Groom, 2002'' and his friend Reuben Lorch-Miller's untitled portraits from 2001.
Wolberger has taken the classic plastic bride and bridegroom statuette that adorns the tops of wedding cakes and, with meticulous precision, has created a startling life-size version, down to the extruded plastic crust that frames it. At once funny, horrifying and bland, it is both a critique of the institution and testimony to the inadequacy of our rituals to sustain it.