Probing Portraits by Nadine Robbins, Ali Cavanaugh, and Gary Weisman at Sirona Fine Art

Irish author Oscar Wilde once said, “every portrait that is painted with feeling is a portrait of the artist, not of the sitter.” Yet, each of the portraits in “Oil Water Bronze,” the current exhibition on view at Sirona Fine Art in Hallandale Beach, Florida, offers proof that the relationship between sitter and artist is never quite as simple as that, submitting instead that both contribute something to the final work of art, even if that something is pure fabrication, ultimately transcending the portrait’s original subject and the circumstances in which it was created.

Dubbed “Oil Water Bronze” due to each artist’s primary medium—oil paintings by Nadine Robbins, watercolors by Ali Cavanaugh, and bronze sculptures by Gary Weisman—the exhibition features figurative works, all of which share in common a tendency to reconsider and reinvent traditional forms of portraiture and its common association with notions of identity and power, iconography and symbolism, the ideal and the realistic. Bringing together the works of three distinct artists, the show presents a selection of portraits that can be seen as vignettes on the meaning and function of portraiture itself. 

Nadine Robbins’s meticulous, realistic oil paintings present subjects that appear at once remarkably candid and highly posed. In many of Robbins’ portraits, such as Mrs. McDonald and She-Ra, the artist’s subjects seem complicit with her in a cheeky play on traditional conceits of portraiture. In what might be understood as a kind of retort to notions of voyeurism and exposure that are sometimes ascribed to portraiture, at times her subjects almost seem to dictate the terms of the ways in which they are presented. In works like Acacia and the Bowman, her subjects seem to own their own vulnerabilities, willingly inviting viewers to take a good look at them, while at the same time defying them to make assumptions. While Robbins allows her subjects to be active agents in their own portraits, her compositions maintain a sense of levity that belies and balances the realist style and which signals her own agency in the creation of the portraits. 

Ali Cavanaugh’s watercolor portraits of young children engage more traditional forms of portraiture, save for her intriguing blue-green palette; most of her works included in the show employ enticing, sheer swathes of celadon. The ethereal colors and liquid renderings of figures, as in In the Dream she was Floating and Hold Spellbound, lend a fluid quality to her canvases. Her precise realist figures appear to be peering from beneath a murky, dreamy veneer. Cavanaugh, who lost most of her hearing due to an illness at age two, paints portraits that reveal an acute sensitivity to the subtleties of facial expressions and gestures. Capturing moments in time through recording simple, potent gestures or facial expressions, her portraits are concentrated studies that give a glimpse into the elusive interior worlds of her subjects, filtered through her own perspective.

Drawing on classical principles of proportion and mimesis, Gary Weisman’s figurative sculptures evince a strong alliance between realism and idealism. His sculptures are at once portraits of actual subjects, created from life with realistic precision, and seemingly idealized representations of anatomy at the peak of its potential, finely rendered in bronze. Evoking a heightened sense of animation, even in instances where they may at first appear to be entirely still, Weisman’s works convey movement through such subtle gestures as the contraction of a muscle in works like Armor, or steadily balanced upon one foot, as we encounter in Sustain, Guardian of Attention. At other times his sculptures appear firmly anchored in such a way that suggests deliberate action. And unlike the portraits by Cavanaugh and Robbins, some of Weisman’s sculptures are faceless. What these figures cannot express through the subtleties of facial gestures, they communicate through intense, dance-like motions, frozen in mid-air, poised in moments of physical and emotional transition.

—Grace-Yvette Gemmell

Oil Water Bronze, featuring Nadine Robbins, Ali Cavanaugh and Gary Weisman is on view at Sirona Fine Art, Hallandale Beach, Dec. 4, 2015 – Jan. 4, 2016.

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