Heads Up

These unconventional portraits are all surface -- but they're still loads of fun

"Hey check it out -- Alan Greenspan is a rug! That is so rad." The hipster chicks sharing a cigarette on the sidewalk in front of the Lizabeth Oliveria Gallery have discovered the work of Rob Conger through the windows, and their pierced lips frame gleeful smiles. Indeed, this downtown Oakland gallery's latest show, "You Ought'a Be in Pictures," is a lot of fun. Oliveria has assembled a trio of artists -- Conger, Steve DeFrank, and Jason Mecier -- who infuse the notoriously stuffy genre of portraiture with some serious irreverence. The portrait, an art form long favored by members of the elite looking to flaunt their wealth and power, seems to be loosening up.

It's nearly impossible not to let out a belly laugh upon catching sight of Mom & Dad, DeFrank's masterful full-scale portrait of his naked parents circa 1976. The image is unnervingly explicit, right down to the gold medallion nestled in our hero's chest hair. The pair hold one another in an easy embrace, their tanned skin glowing -- literally. The couple is rendered in more than 80,000 illuminated Lite-Brite pegs, each painstakingly hand-dyed by DeFrank to create just the right hue. On a nearby wall hang Fritzand Hank, Lite-Brite representations of two Fisher-Price Little People, done up Folsom Street Fair-style: One sports bondage gear and the other dons a golden cowboy hat. It's at once amusing and unsettling to see the stylized plastic bodies of these toys fleshed out as if in the realistic style of conventional portraiture; the careful gradations of color and tone lend them a comical gravity.

Little People also figure in Self-Portrait, for which DeFrank carefully mapped a photograph of his own face and replaced each pixel with an actual plastic Little Person, glued to the wall to create a larger-than-life mosaic. DeFrank, apparently dissatisfied with the homogenous, neutered bodies of the Little People, recast the toys in a range of skin tones and added pendulous new body parts. Each figure is unique, from their nipple rings right down to their glittery G-strings. There are even a few variations on Ronald McDonald, whose signature feathered red do crowns facial expressions ranging from sweetly seductive to decidedly impure. Despite their explicit sexual content, DeFrank's portraits remain playful. Unlike Mike Kelley's slightly sinister stuffed-toy installations or the monstrously disfigured child mannequins of Dinos and Jake Chapman, DeFrank's work manages to introduce adult themes into child's play without warping the inherent innocence of the toys.

Little People, Big Person: Plastic toys make up  Steve DeFrank's Self-Portrait.
Little People, Big Person: Plastic toys make up Steve DeFrank's Self-Portrait.
Little People, Big Person: Plastic toys make up  Steve DeFrank's Self-Portrait.
Little People, Big Person: Plastic toys make up Steve DeFrank's Self-Portrait.

Like DeFrank, Conger approaches his subjects as a painter would, carefully deploying his colored strands of yarn to achieve an impressively realistic likeness. His tufted-rug portraits of Alan Greenspan are remarkably sensitive and skillfully executed -- who would have thought shag could be so detailed? Still, these three portrayals of Greenspan are the weakest aspect of an otherwise vigorous show. Beyond the obvious incongruities of presenting such an esteemed figure in the form of a hooked rug and of presenting a hooked rug on a gallery wall, there isn't much bite to these works. Though the implicit invitation to use the Fed chairman's face as a bathmat is admittedly provocative (and tempting), I'd find these pieces more impressive if I could see any significance in the match of subject to medium. A glance at slides of Conger's past work, however, reveals that he's strictly a rug man, whether depicting Heidi Fleiss or Bob Barker. In the end, Conger's work comes across as all fluff, no substance.

Jason Mecier, on the other hand, puts considerable effort into finding just the right objects to express not only his subjects' appearances but also their inner worlds. For instance, Mecier renders popular WWF wrestler the Rock in high relief, with plastic figurines of his adversaries outlining the contours of his snarling face. The iconography of Twilight Zone host Rod Serling's portrait is subtler. A host of keys makes up his neck (perhaps to suggest the parallel worlds he opened to viewers) and a small light bulb graces his brow, a nod to his mental acuity. Most people who enter the gallery can identify these two faces almost immediately, but they're often stumped by the alarmingly round yellow eyes of Linda Blair, whose image emerges from a sea of green objects (a bottle of Tangle Tamer, a box of Apple Jacks) that evoke her infamous Exorcistperformance. The portrait even includes a plastic bottle labeled "Holy Water," thrown into the mix for good measure. Though some new compositional strategies (a more dynamic backdrop, for instance, or a departure from the conventional head-and-shoulders shot) could add more visual excitement to Mecier's work, his ability to create a likeness with a few household discards is truly uncanny.

Some will undoubtedly feel that the works on view in "You Ought'a Be in Pictures" are merely gimmicky or superficial. As the Hollywood-inspired title of the show intimates, there's little more to them than meets the eye. But portraiture isn't traditionally meant to inspire profound thought; to be considered successful, most portrait artists need only make the sitter look impressive. With the innovative sculptural approaches and generally thoughtful humor they bring to the genre, DeFrank, Conger, and Mecier manage to turn portraiture on its proverbial head.

 
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