ANN ARBOR, Mich. — Painted portraits have had a long and varied role throughout art history: as acts of devotion, commissions in the service of patrons, and, of course, a means of self-identification for artists. Though modern media like film and photography have greatly expanded the possibility that one might own an image of oneself, the painted portrait nonetheless retains a kind of cache as an especial and elevated way to capture a likeness. In a solo exhibition at the University of Michigan Institute for the Humanities Gallery, When This is All Over/Cuando Esto Termine, artist Shizu Saldamando paints portraits in an effort to capture individuals from her own community — one which consists of many overlapping or abutting layers of identity. Featuring people from the Latinx art scene, queer clubs, her native Los Angeles, and the sides of her family that are Mexican-American and Japanese-American, Saldamando’s portraits present not only her nearest compatriots, but a moment that finds them isolated at home, waiting out a public health crisis that has left most people questioning the nature and necessity of social constructs.
“I met Taco Guillen at Punk Club Scum in East LA/Montebello, CA when he used to go-go dance there,” reads the label information accompanying “Portrait of Taco Guillen” (2021). “He is the lead vocalist for the punk band La Pregunta? (amongst others). He runs his own cleaning company, Aftermath Services, and does vocational training for people with developmental disabilities. I took a photo of him hanging out in my backyard during a socially distant visit.”
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Each of the eight portraits is presented with a little story like this one, indicating the artist’s relationship to the subject. Most of the images are oil paint and mixed media — including handmade papers, glitter, and gold leaf that hearken to craft traditions from Saldamando’s multi-ethnic heritage — on wood or paper backing, but three works, from the 2013-14 Embrace series are presented as fabric hanging from a wash line. On a series of three bedsheets clothes-pinned to a line, Saldamando proffers two ballpoint portraits of people embracing, bracketing a projected video work of a mosh pit at an outdoor festival. The close press and tumble of humans in a circle dance, both animated from within and gently waving with the action of the hanging sheet, lend an otherworldly sense to these three works, as though the laundry line represents the distant memories of those captured in the oil paintings — remember when we could gather? Remember when we could hug? Remember when we could go to a concert?
In an adjacent gallery, Saldamando projects a snippet of black and white, silent amateur footage of life in Heart Mountain concentration camp, Wyoming, captured by Naokichi Hashizume in February 1945. This short film documents an activity imposed upon Japanese-Americans interred during World War II, forced, among other things, to make wreaths of paper roses. While visiting UMIH, Saldamando engaged six classes and some hundred University of Michigan students in flower-making and conversation.
“They were so into it,” UMIH Gallery curator Amanda Krugliak told Hyperallergic. “It was profound … starved to simply make something, talk to one another …. it really makes me think about how important crafting can be in order to process our own and collective feelings.” The vestiges of this work in the exhibition are sections of chain-link fence adorned with paper flowers.
“During pandemic lockdown days, I was inundated with images of children and families being separated at the border,” Saldamando writes in an accompanying label. “Caring for my own small child at home and not being able to go anywhere to decompress, these images were extra horrifying. I recalled my own familial trauma that my mother’s side went through being uprooted from their home in the Boyle Heights neighborhood of Los Angeles and being forced into prison camps because they were of Japanese descent. The trauma they went through during those years during WWII still plays out in their lives and mental stability today. I could only imagine the damage these children and babies and parents have to face not only being imprisoned but separated as well — all while a pandemic rages through prisons across the nation.”
Whether caught in an embrace, caught in the catharsis of dance, or caught in poignant and personal portraits, Saldamando’s oeuvre seems obsessed with the power of an artist to present community, culture, and connections that have been historically occluded from view. Her subjects take their place with a long line of people captured throughout art history and thus preserved to inform the future, when this is all over.
When This is All Over/Cuando Esto Termine continues the University of Michigan Institute for the Humanities Gallery (Suite 1111, 202 S. Thayer Street, Ann Arbor, Mich) through December 10. The exhibition was curated by Amanda Krugliak.