By James D. Campbell
September 10 – October 15, 2011
Portolese’s recent work is something of a departure for the artist, and one as radiant as it is unprecedented. In the exhibition Antonia’s Garden, the artist employs members of her own family in the making of a poetic and moving meta-narrative, with an eye to commemoration and celebration. In so doing, she achieves something like perfect memorialisation.
This show was not officially part of the annual Mois de la Photo – the celebration of photography in Montreal galleries curated this year by Anne-Marie Ninacs – but it dovetailed with it, beautifully.
Portolese meditates on the politics of her own family with courage, gravitas and poeisis. Hers’ is a vibrant palimpsest fraught with shadows and luminosities as she courageously confronts and “works through” – I mean this both in the sense of a creative feminist praxis as well as a psychoanalytic practice – difficult issues relating to gender, identity, displacement and abandonment. She has essayed a particularly moving and layered portrait of the complex relationship between self and Other, mother and child that, in her own words, is necessarily “one of rupture and redemption."
Weaving and interweaving sundry dreams and memories, Portolese puts portraiture, landscape and still life, and what often seem like narrative film stills, to highly effective use in building up her psychologically tiered portraits of family members. This multi-tense group portrait is at once a celebration of those still living and a eulogy for those long since lost.
Her gift, as is so often the case with her work, is an innate ability to capture the lush, multilayered structures of domestic life with a crisp, deft and altogether disarming touch. She invokes old memories, even primordial ones, and her commemorative spirit can be felt throughout the exhibited works like a piercing ray of light. She sifts through the tangled skein of relationships in her won family tree with dramatic force and phenomenal delicacy.
Portolese’s oeuvre has always been lush, intense, vibrant, lyrical, even tropical in its mien, and this recent work is no exception. But further, she expresses the overwhelming fragility of life with characteristic subtlety and restraint in telling her own familial story.
The story she tells has genuine universality. In 1951, when her mother was five years old, she was sent from her native province of Sardinia in Italy to live with her sick aunt in the southern province of Calabria. After leaving, she would never return to live in her childhood home with her immediate family. Portolese says that her mother suffered immensely from this complete familial abandonment. Since her mother moved to Canada, she has only returned to Italy for occasional visits and holidays with her own family (Portolese and her father). She has always been on good speaking terms with her mother, regardless of what had transpired. The artist’s grandmother is still alive but bedridden, and it is at this precise juncture in her life that Portolese's grandmother is finally finding words to express how she feels about abandoning her daughter.
The photographs consist of varied constructed scenes redolent of richly embroidered back-stories of domestic, familial life. Portolese employs introspective poses in this storytelling to convey to the viewer that something emotional – and specifically momentous – is unfolding. Through clues of physiognomy, facial expression and the staging of the photographic scene, Portolese seizes upon the narrative potential of the image as conduit. She captures family members in quiet moments of reflection, and juxtaposes them in these photographs with domestic spaces, landscapes and still life, in an effort to reference states of mind, and emplace the viewer in geographical and emotional places. She references historical artworks with assurance and alacrity to grow the plot. The images unfurl a narrative that has no definitive point of departure or arrival; the viewer is left to infer, as it were, the moral of the stories in question. Portolese has never been one to shy away from the hard facts of human existence, and in Antonia’s Garden, she touches upon the full array: sundry issues of mortality, breakdowns in communication, heartbreak, betrayal and individual afflictions. The images may be equivocal but this photographer never equivocates. She embraces strong emotions without hesitation, and is entirely unafraid when she dilates on death and dying, mourning, loss and the high price of emotional survival.
James D. Campbell is a writer on art and a curator based in Montreal. He is the author of well over 100 catalogues and books on art and artists. Recent and upcoming publications include monographs on painters Paul Bureau, Michel Daigneault and Mirana Zuger. Campbell also contributes frequently to many art magazines, including Frieze, Border Crossings, Canadian Art and others.