SAN DIEGO — The Timken Art Gallery and the San Diego Museum of Contemporary Art have swapped pictures again. The unlikely bedfellows made a stimulating match last fall with the first of three exhibitions in which works from each institution's collection were temporarily installed among works from the other.
In Phase I of the program, the cool, cubic galleries of the Museum of Contemporary Art played host to moody dramas by 17th-Century artists Rembrandt and Murillo, while the Timken welcomed two contemporary paintings into its staid surrounds. According to plan, the juxtaposition of work from the Timken's distinguished collection of 13th- through 19th-Century European and American paintings with SDMCA's late 20th-Century holdings jostled viewers to fresh new perspectives. Hanging the paintings in such unexpected settings spurred a new take on the continuities of art history and the visual dialogues that transpire between artists of different eras.
The first segment of the exchange program proved the plan to be rich, wise and well worth continuing. Phase II, on view now through May 22 at both institutions, is only half as insightful. The works newly grouped together at the Museum of Contemporary Art make a stimulating set, but those at the Timken stand like strangers in a crowd.
At the Museum of Contemporary Art, a pair of 18th-Century French portraits from the Timken hangs among contemporary photographs, paintings and constructions that expand upon the definition of portraiture. Assembled together, all of these works gradually reveal as much about themselves and each other as about our expectations of portraiture as a window to the soul, an honest reflection of the truth, if not the essence of the sitter.
The Timken's portraits of Barthelemy Jean Claude Pupil and his wife, Marguerite de Seve (both dated 1729), subscribe to a different goal. The artist, Nicolas de Largilliere, clearly sought a likeness of his subjects, but an idealized one that indicated his sitters' wealth and high social standing more than their personalities.
Both husband and wife are shown, according to the conventions of the day, in their finery, against shallow backgrounds--a library and a music room--that suggest his status as a man of learning and hers as a woman of culture. Poised and polished, they stand proud of their positions in the French aristocracy.
A large color photograph by Cindy Sherman hangs in startling, stimulating juxtaposition with the portrait of De Seve. Sherman is a New York artist whose work consists entirely of self-portrait photographs, for which she has assumed roles as diverse as a 1950s teen-ager and a young male character from a Caravaggio painting. Here she follows the lead of traditional portraitists like Largilliere, but to her own, subversive ends.
Where De Seve stands erect and elegant, Sherman slouches, her faded silks wrinkling and bunching. In contrast to De Seve's creamy, blushed skin, Sherman's skin appears blotchy and dotted with unsightly warts. Sherman's 1989 photograph (borrowed from a private collection to make this powerful comparison) shoots gaping holes into the seamless artifice that is standard in commissioned portraits. Full of the unflattering details that portrait painters are paid to omit, Sherman's self-consciously shabby self-portrait raises pointed questions about what Largilliere's subjects may really have looked like, behind their posturing facades.
Cynicism and an air of disdain permeate Sherman's work as it corrodes our trust in the portrait paintings as historical documents. A neighboring series by local artist Richard Lou (from the SDMCA collection) drills the point home by cleverly demonstrating that the photographer is just as guilty as the painter of manipulating reality.
Lou's series of self-portraits shows the artist in a variety of guises, from that of a farm laborer to a female prostitute. Each image is accompanied by a panel of text identifying the fictional character and offering some "first-hand" comments about his or her life. The documentary format that Lou uses invites trust, for it appears to be the simplest, most straightforward form of record-making. But Lou turns the documentary form inside out to make an intelligent spoof of the veracity of the photographic image. Here, every image is credible, but all are false.
Using the Largilliere works as touchstones, this gallery full of portraits comes alive even more than their makers could have imagined.