I recently got to walk around the “Face to Face: Artists’ Self-Portraits from the Collection of Jackye and Curtis Finch Jr.” exhibition at the Arkansas Arts Center with Finch and Arts Center registrar Thom Hall. Here’s what I discovered: Finch is passionate about the Arts Center’s mission to have a premier collection of works on paper. These artists, he said, gesturing to the works on the wall in the “Face to Face” show, could one day take a place in history alongside Old Masters or French Impressionists, and contemporary work is the way the Arts Center can make a name for itself.
The Arts Center is lucky that Finch feels that way, since one day it will be the recipient of Finch’s personal collection of works on paper, which now numbers more than 400.
“Face to Face” is a huge, splendid assemblage of self-portraits, a genre Finch became interested in the past 10 years or so. Like many of Little Rock’s collectors, Finch became deeply interested in art after he joined the Arts Center’s board of trustees. Former Director Townsend Wolfe, who guided the Arts Center for 30 years, made works on paper the focus of the institution’s collection and created the annual “Collectors Show and Sale,” which is in its 45th edition this year. He brought art dealers in to meet with the Arts Center’s Collectors group and led the group’s members on tours of New York galleries, making art lovers out of them. Finch was in the group. “I started buying one here and there and before long I was hooked,” he said.
Some of the portraits in the show, Finch noted, are straightforward, like Stephen Assael’s colored pencil on paper of the artist in a cap turned backward. “And some are like Warren Criswell’s,” he said, smiling and pointing to the Arkansas artist’s “Man Pissing,” in which Criswell is up against a wall, frowning over his shoulder at us, the onlookers.
There are disturbing works here, such as Melissa Cooke’s “The Between Spaces: Muffled,” a huge surreal graphite drawing of her head in a translucent bag that deforms her face into a triangle and suggests suffocation. The work is paired — as are all the works in the show, as an organizational strategy — with Ian Ingram’s gigantic portrait of his bearded face, a hyperrealistic drawing (achieved with a magnifying glass) in one sense — every pore, every hair in his beard, the imprint of his irises are stunning — but Ingram has made the chin huge and the forehead small, thus the name of the work, “Easter Island.” Evelyn Embrey’s portrait of herself as Medusa, snakes emerging from her gray mane, is certainly unsettling (“Jackye hates that one,” Finch says); Jules Kirschenbaum’s cratered face is not easy to look at and the gestalt of China Marks’ collage (“Life in Ancient China”) is difficult. Which means you may not look at them long, but you will return to them again and again.
Alex Queral’s self-portrait was among several Finch commissioned; it is a bas relief, carved from the pages of a telephone book. Ellen Eagle, another commission, tried to paint herself at the easel but decided that the stance she makes when she looks at her work was the better picture; the result is a striking study in blue and pale green pastel on pumice board. John Falato, who is 73 and a landscape artist, created for Finch a pale graphite drawing of himself as a young man in the woods, emerging from the leaf litter.
Nicola Hicks’ elegant charcoal on brown paper self-portrait, her expression imperious, her head in a funny wool hat, her coat flowing from her shoulders, is a knockout. There are artists here whose drawing is miraculous — like James Valerio, Bill Admundson (paired with a fine Susan Hauptman), Gregory Pacquette, Victor Koulbak and Aj Smith (the last two paired silverpoints), to name but a few.
Not all the portraits are by living artists; there is a stunning crayon and pastel self-portrait by Moses Soyer and, for good measure, a pencil self-portrait by his twin brother, Raphael. Paul Cadmus’ self-portrait, “The New Bridge,” dedicated to his dentist, separates the artist’s choppers from the rest of the portrait; it is paired with a tooth-baring Sigmund Abeles.
Finch has relied on Wolfe and Hall, whose portrait is also in the show, to help build his collection. “I would call them, say ‘How do you like this? What do you think of this?’ I had lots of noes,” he said. He hasn’t regretted any of his purchases, he said; he has regretted some things he was outbid for at auction.
Finch emphasized the assistance Hall has given in the past several years to his collecting and Wolfe’s “dedication to drawings”; he hopes current and future administrators will appreciate Wolfe’s wisdom and continue to build the permanent collection.
There are 118 works in this show, enough to meet the hungriest desire to look artists in the face. What they know about themselves is deliciously presented to us to ponder and place in the human experience. An excellent catalog, dedicated to Wolfe and written by University of Arkansas at Little Rock gallery director Brad Cushman, is available for purchase in the Museum Store. The exhibition runs through Feb. 9.