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The Undiscovered Country

Seen and Unseen, oil on layered glassine, 20" x 28" (detail)
            "  the dread of something after death,
The undiscover'd country, from whose bourn
No traveller returns. "
Hamlet, Act 3, scene 1

In the United States, a country obsessed with youth culture and the eternal postponement of old age, one of the greatest taboos is to talk openly about the aging process and death. In her exhibition at Hofheimer Gallery in Chicago, artist Mary Porterfield bravely depicts some of the adverse effects of aging with a clear-eyed gaze, a skillful hand, and a great degree of compassion.

In these oil paintings on glassine, we see the faces, hands, and bodies of the aged with nothing hidden. Porterfield's brush carefully depicts all the wrinkles, the folds, the sagging of flesh on bones, the pallid skin and the red-rimmed eyes. In many of the paintings we see the same female face, apparently that of the artist's grandmother who experienced memory problems towards the end of her life (she died aged 100). Thus we see a woman lying on the floor, perhaps after suffering a fall. We see a hand gripping a common object such as a spoon, while the other hand grips the wrist to steady it from shaking. The muted colours of the paintings, and the glassy, transparent surface on which they are painted, give the pictures a haunted, floating appearance.

Oil on layered glassine, varied dimensions
The accomplished technique makes our eyes retrace the passage of the artist's hand, recreating the close attention to light on sinew, joint, and bone. It is as if we are looking at moments from a different time, filtered through a sepia-tinted lens. In fact, Porterfield is forcing us to look at a future that awaits all of us, to a greater or lesser degree. What is remarkable about this exhibition is that she finds such beauty in that.

in:dependence continues at Hofheimer Gallery, 4823 N. Damen Avenue, Chicago, until September 28th, 2019.

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