Portraits of another matter

Malibu artist Robert Weingarten’s latest exhibit features portraits of well known people-without their likeness.

By Paul Sisolak / Special to The Malibu Times

Before taking up his camera and embarking on his newest endeavor, Robert Weingarten posed himself a question that was at once philosophical and paradoxical: Can one express a person photographically without showing them?

Visitors to the Craig Krull Gallery in Santa Monica this weekend will find the answer in Weingarten’s exhibit, “The Portrait Unbound,” which debuts May 11 and remains on display for a month.

The exhibit is a collection of what the Malibu photographer calls “translucent composites”-portraits of historic figures in music, politics, literature, film and sports without actually featuring their likenesses, containing instead a blend of images selected firsthand by the photos’ subjects of the items with which they most closely associate themselves.

When Weingarten idealized the project nearly five years ago, he knew the undertaking would become a journey more than just an assignment, taking him across the globe to meet personally with people like Hank Aaron, Mikhail Baryshnikov, Colin Powell, Joyce Carol Oates and the late Dennis Hopper.

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“The idea,” Weingarten said, “was to unbound the portrait from the normal constraints of photographic portraiture,” or, as he described it, to represent a person in a photograph metaphorically, without the inclusion of their face, their family, pets or other obvious markers.

“That’s not the way people think of themselves,” Weingarten said.

Weingarten began the process of personally contacting the people he hoped to feature, asking each one to create a list of 10 things that define their character. Weingarten planned to photograph each object on each list to build his composites.

Some of their choices were obvious and some not, giving insight into how they view themselves versus their more common public image. The portrait of “Jane Goodall” contains, naturally, four thoughtful-looking chimpanzees, but also dogs, candles and a stuffed animal named “Mr. H.” Aaron’s portrait embodies the traditional All-American baseball iconography, offset by the Milwaukee railroad car the slugger was forced to sleep in during segregation, when a black man even of his cultural stature was barred from sleeping in some hotels while on the road.

Other portraits were more challenging because, like Weingarten, little may be known about them personally; their bodies of work are what personify them in the public eye. The portrait of Chuck Close required Weingarten to travel around the world to photograph gardens in England and the Scrovegni Chapel in Italy, as well as exemplifying Close’s favorite personal compositions and the tools of his trade: paper towels and fine-point pens.

In others still, Weingarten snapped photos of photos: the poster for “The Color Purple” hanging on Quincy Jones’ wall that the music legend co-produced.

Weingarten also had a major judgment call to make. Were the lists he received incomplete? Colin Powell, curiously, had omitted his stint spent working at the White House.

“I called [Powell] to ascertain whether it was something that was just an oversight,” Weingarten said. “It was purposely done. He put in the state department work, but no White House work.”

Like a Picasso of photography, Weingarten is perhaps familiar for the manner in which he often reinvents himself and his methodologies. All divergent in character, collections like his “6:30 a.m.,” or “Amish” or “Jackson Pollock” series each appear to come from a different artist altogether, indicating a talent chameleonic yet multifaceted.

This proved to be true when “Portrait” exited the camera phase and entered the computer stage. Weingarten assembled his composites using Adobe Photoshop and a host of other technological advances. Most of the portraits took an average of two months to complete, some longer, with up to 35 layers of detail.

His new blend of photo collage Weingarten likened more to the inductive process used in painting-starting with a blank canvas and building from there-rather than the deductive process associated with traditional photography. The result is a blend of the analog and the digital, the optical and the mindful.

“This was the first time I used it as a compositional tool,” he said. “You’re juggling all these compositional permutations and possibilities.”

The photos are huge, measuring 40 feet by 90 feet, and in some cases, 60 feet by 90 feet, including a self-portrait. Weingarten said this was deliberate so the viewer could examine each, concentrating one’s eye on a single spot before moving to the next.

The Krull Gallery will display approximately 10 of the 25 photos in “The Portrait Unbound” when it debuts next week. An artist reception will take place on May 14 from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m. at the gallery, 2525 Michigan Ave., Bldg. B3, Santa Monica. Next year, the exhibit will be featured at the Smithsonian Gallery in Washington, D.C.

More information can be obtained online at www.robertweingarten.com or www.craigkrullgallery.com.

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The Malibu Times is the first newspaper in Malibu, serving the community since 1946.

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