Ellen De Mejeir, “4th Generation Bill” (2020), oil on canvas, 19.7″ x 15.7″ Courtesy of Unix Gallery

It’s often said that there’s nothing new in art, and it can certainly seem that way at times. But there is much value in revisiting familiar genres if one has something new to say about them. Two shows – “At Face Value” at Cove Street Arts and “John Whalley: Short Stories” at Greenhut Galleries (both through Aug. 27) – are worth seeing for the new language and ideas they inject into classical art forms.

In “At Face Value,” curator Vincent Maxime Daudin, a collector, fashion industry consultant and creative director in New York and Paris for many years, takes on portraiture, basically turning it on its headshot, so to speak. Through painting, drawing, charcoal, photography, pastel and mixed media, Daudin challenges portraiture’s often idealized depiction of the human form. He is after a more immediate emotional verisimilitude and aims to upset the very nature of what portraiture is.

To start off with one particularly destabilizing example: the children’s portraits of Amsterdam-based painter Ellen de Meijer. The artist adopts the cutesy style of doe-eyed innocents of kitschy figurines and cartoons. But we clearly discern this visual language as only a veneer of adorableness in their gaze, which is creepily vacant and robotic. It’s a scary composure imposed upon them by the strict social codes of privilege and wealth, and their unsmiling faces and hollow stares point to an almost violent repression of unruly, combustible emotions underneath.

Or there are the youths depicted in oil-on-paper and graphite-on-paper works of New York-based Eric Helvie. There is incredible skill in the way he captures the pensive expressions of his subjects. Most seem to telegraph the isolation and alienation of many millennials, the result of many factors (the pandemic, social media, a generalized sense of dystopia). Helvie compounds the sense of these external forces through brushstrokes that partially obscure facial features, as though these young people are lost behind our world’s contemporary ennui, struggling to come into focus.

Eric Helvie, “Lemonhead in the Garden (In Spring)” (2022), Oil on paper, 21″ x 14″ Courtesy of Eric Helvie and Massey Klein Gallery

London artist Dahren Davey does something similar, but from his perspective on the fashion world (he worked for Vivienne Westwood and has been a fashion illustrator, designer and researcher). He throws the same sort of disaffection that Helvie tackles into high relief by using bright colors often associated with uplifting moods. Yet these young men do not look happy. Like painter Marilyn Minter, he is pulling back the curtain on a darker side of fashion. “(The) majority of these models are simply clothes horses that are asked to be expressionless mannequins,” reads Davey’s statement – their interior lives be damned.

This sense of the pressure from external societal forces appears again and again. Massachusetts-based Lucy Beecher Nelson covers the faces of herself and her family with textile patterns drawn from domestic objects and clothing in her home. It is a device for commenting on the way certain gender and domestic roles are imposed on our daily lives, limiting the far more complex truth of our natures.


Uzbekistan-born, New York-based painter Yuriy Ibragimov captures expressions that seem, thanks to the fidgety energy of his brushstrokes, to be already rushing by us, here for just a fleeting instant. It is of a piece with Alex Kanesvsky’s “J.F.H. and Dark Garden,” a diptych whose left side blurs the face and shoulders of his subject in a way reminiscent of old celluloid movie reels that snag in the projector, presenting consecutive instants of an expression overlayed on each other so they appear to vibrate.

It’s not all melancholia. The “sitters” of Ed Valentine, who splits his time between Ohio and New Jersey, appear disfigured in a way akin to George Condo’s, yet they are whimsical rather than grotesque. The works are in love with paint as medium at the same time that they feel humorously cartoonish.

Stefan Sagmeister, “Ms. MP” (2022), 19th century oil on canvas, mounted on Masonite with household paint and resin inlays, 58.63″ x 41″ Courtesy of the artist

And Austrian-born, New York-based Stefan Sagmeister, a graphic designer and multiple Grammy award-winning album cover designer, uses old portraits to superimpose positive messages that counter the contemporary anxieties pervading many of the other works. For instance, “Scriptures” is a 19th-century Madonna on which he has grafted three enamel shapes. These symbols are measurements for how many books were printed in England per million people – 65 in 1600 (a small white star), 298 in 1800 (a larger green star) and 1,745 in 2000 (a purple triangle) – indicating the country’s growing literacy. “Mrs. MP” tracks the growth of women in British government, “Hot and Cold” the availability of running water.

In essence, Daudin is not presenting portraits of particular people as much as he is snapshots – inventively conceived through the classical form – of the world in our times.


Trompe l’oeil painting dates to ancient Greece. In the 17th century, however, Dutch artists became especially adept at these sleights of hand (their trompe l’oeil still lives and portraits were, in fact, called “deceptions”). The English (Edward Collier, for instance) and French (Jean-Étienne Liotard) carried it into the 1700s.


John Whalley, who lives near Damariscotta, clearly reveres this genre. His skill is, frankly, astonishing. His work is so meticulously painted or drafted with graphite that textures of wood, leather, metal, grass, twine and pinecones take on a visceral presence. The illusion of three-dimensionality is thoroughly convincing.

John Whalley, “Conifer,” oil on panel, 24-1/2″ x 18″ Courtesy of the artist

To me, the graphite works are even more mind-boggling for the way they evoke texture, light and weight within the limitations of a black, white and gray palette. Compare, for example, “Conifer” and “Sea Cone.” These are exactly the same cone, the former rendered with oil on panel, the latter with graphite on paper. Both are exquisite. But, in a way, you could say it is easier to convey light with oil paint because you have the actual palette of light – namely various gradations of yellow, pink, gold and copper – at your disposal. Indeed, “Conifer” is bathed in a warm golden glow.

John Whalley, “Sea Cone,” graphite on paper, 15-1/2″ x 10-1/4″ Courtesy of the artist

Yet the perception of light in “Sea Cone” is no less convincing, almost even more so. Whalley achieves this by relying more heavily on shadow rather than light, its umbra providing a contrast that makes lighter areas feel similarly illuminated by daylight.

This is extremely labor-intensive, time-consuming work. A piece like “Requiem,” a graphite drawing of wild grasses measuring 40-by-30 inches, took Whalley some 400 hours to complete. Whalley also employs techniques of the Dutch Masters, namely egg tempera on panel. This medium is extremely fast drying, which, paradoxically, means Whalley must proceed slowly, painting small sections at a time over an extended period. That makes a work like “Bowl of Pears” pratically miraculous.

All this, despite the extraordinary perfection and skill, is not particularly new. So, what is Whalley’s innovation? That lies in the depth he brings to the genre. The trompe l’oeil work of the Flemish and Dutch Renaissance, as well as modern American realists like Audrey Flack and John Stuart Ingle, created pictures that made you feel like you could reach into them and pull out an apple, a flower, a crayon or a coin. Incredible as these remain, the emphasis here is on visual trickery.

John Whalley, “Duo,” egg tempera on panel, 8-1/2″ x 12″ Courtesy of the artist

Whalley’s works transmit warmth, melancholy and/or nostalgia, as well as a poignant sense of the passage of time. A painting like “Duo,” an egg tempera on panel of a baseball and a softball, does this in several ways. First, Whalley has a propensity for objects that look worn. These are not new, pristine white balls. In the larger of the two, we see cracks caused by the age-dried leather. In the smaller one, part of the red stitching is gone. Second, the painted surface on which they sit is peeling and flaking, revealing wood underneath. Lastly, and perhaps most lyrically, a rectangle of what appears to be late afternoon light at the top projects through a windowpane onto the surface.

John Whalley, “Camouflage,” egg tempera on panel, 18″ x 12-1/2″ Courtesy of the artist

In “Camouflage,” the sense of time comes from the obvious age of the wrench and hammer. Patinated metal, paint-splattered wood handles – these have clearly seen years of service. My favorites are the more straightforward compositions of simple utilitarian items – spackle knives, spigots, an awl and a spool of twine – because they telegraph so much with so little. But all seem redolent with presence, as if we are beholding not just objects, but their inner spirit and the imprint of their history.

Jorge S. Arango has written about art, design and architecture for over 35 years. He lives in Portland. He can be reached at: jorge@jsarango.com

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