Oh, the humanity

A pleasurable show at the MFA centers on the human figure in a variety of guises.

People. Probably you know a few. They can be lovely. Or strange. Or even a huge pain in the ass. "Hell is other people," Sartre famously observed. Nevertheless, the sense that we can't live without them, as the old saw goes, is fundamental to the experience of being human.

Maybe that's why the sight of the human figure in contemporary art, which sometimes feels like a pristine conceptual wasteland unmarred by evidence of human personality, can be so comforting. Seeing a person in a picture or a sculpture gives us the feeling that we "get it" — a feeling so often teasingly proffered and then cruelly withheld in contemporary art. (Sit in on any art school critique, and you'll quickly understand why. Making art that's too easy to get just isn't the work of a properly trained artist.)

The Human Touch, an exhibition of art drawn from the collection of RBC Wealth Management now on view at St. Pete's Museum of Fine Arts, offers a lot of opportunities to "get it." Each of the nearly 50 works included in the show — photographs, paintings, drawings, prints and a few sculptures — treats the human figure in some way. In the case of Susy Gomez's "Mas Pensamientos (Funky Chicken Club)," 2002, this means powerfully evoking the figure through its absence in an iron sculpture of a floating cheongsam. Whereas John Sonsini's painting, "Fernando," 2003, makes its subject vividly present in a tenderly human portrait of a Mexican-American day laborer rendered in fabulously thick paint that makes his subject's mustache quiver and his pocket bulge with an overstuffed wallet.

The diversity of works in the exhibition — each by a different artist, some widely known, some emerging, with many of the works produced over the past decade — makes The Human Touch a pleasure to view, and also rather a lot of work. By which I mean that you, the viewer, may need to put in some serious spectatorial labor to get a lot out of this show. Think of The Human Touch as a party where each of nearly 50 guests requires a separate conversation; each has its own personality and grapples with a fairly distinct set of issues, setting it apart from the others. That's a lot of getting-to-know-you.

For instance, you've just got to spend some time with Carrie Mae Weems' "Untitled (Woman with Friends)," 1990. This series of photographs, which place a black woman as protagonist at the center of an open-ended narrative about female relationships, has become a textbook piece. Though in some ways the passage of 20 years has muted the subversion of Weems' refusal to idealize or sexualize her female subjects in the ways that art often has historically, the impact of her practice (along with other artists) of making visible previously invisible subjects is evinced by other works in the exhibition. Almost a decade later, for instance, Radcliffe Bailey incorporates a photo of an anonymous African-American ancestor into "Osun," a painting steeped in the history of American abstraction. Dinh Q. Lecirc; weaves together (literally) photographs of Vietnam in his untitled work of 2002, suggesting that our image of reality is a patchwork of representations of other people.

While each of the works in The Human Touch offers such depth of food for thought — no complaints about the quality of work here — I'm not sure the parts add up to a whole. Beyond the common theme of the figure, the exhibit offers little in the way of a curatorial proposition. (But then, the exhibit has never been advertised as anything but selections from a corporate collection, so maybe that's expecting too much.)

Most fun for me was going from The Human Touch into adjoining exhibits at the MFA, where as a rule a dizzying display of humanity is on view across galleries. A folk art exhibition highlights pieces by self-taught artists who generally work, or worked during their lives, beyond the boundaries of the official contemporary art world reflected in The Human Touch. There's a great Howard Finster painting in the bunch — a lovingly handcrafted image of tiny human figures marching their way toward salvation up a highway that leads into a sky filled with the smiling face of Christ. Not religious myself, I tend to read the image as testimony to the need we humans feel to situate ourselves in a larger story of existence through words and images.

A photography exhibit upstairs, Familiar and Fantastic: Photographs from the Dandrew-Drapkin Donation, also talks back to The Human Touch in a neat way. Rich in portraits, this selection from a recent major contribution to the museum's photography holdings fleshes out a bit of historical context for photographic images of the human figure. A glass vitrine of 19th-century cabinet cards and other commercial portraiture showcases a gamut of human experience. My favorite is a picture of a handsome tattooed man, whose full sleeves and collarbone tattoo of a necklace of chain links are just as awesome in 2011 as they must have been in the 1870s. Beneath the striking image, the cabinet card advertises its maker, a portrait studio on the Bowery in New York City, where even today one might find a real eyeful of humanity.

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