Elizabeth MacKenzie, "Reunion" and Sean Alward, "Doppelganger"

At the Richmond Art Gallery until April 15

A quote by Walter Benjamin is posed in the education hall of the Richmond Art Gallery: "The portrait becomes after a few generations no more than a testimony to the art of the person who made it." A tad reductive, perhaps, but hey, still worth contemplating while viewing the works of Elizabeth MacKenzie and Sean Alward. Just as images of the human face compel our gaze, the nature of portraiture--its revelations and obfuscations, its assertions and erasures, its objective content and subjective tone--compel our thoughts.

Elizabeth MacKenzie's ongoing project, Reunion (aspects of which appeared in For the Record at the Vancouver Art Gallery last summer), consists here of hundreds upon hundreds of powdered-graphite drawings of her late mother, delicately brushed onto small pieces of overlapping vellum or directly onto the gallery walls. These are juxtaposed with dozens of self-portraits: a wall image in graphite and the rest in ink wash on rice paper, pasted onto panels.

Each image of MacKenzie's mother is based on an old photograph. Reunion seems to be about the slippery intersection of love, loss, memory, and meaning; about attempts to call up the dead through both photography and obsessive recollection; and about the impossibility of fixing any person, place, or thing through such attempts.

Because she works from a slide projected in varying sizes and degrees of focus, MacKenzie's images seem to advance and recede in space. Many of them are fuzzily out of focus, pale smudges of barely recognizable features. Others are much more acute likenesses--although not necessarily of the woman in the photograph. As MacKenzie observes in her artist's statement, some of these drawings are "idealized and lovely"; others are "monstrous". Uncertainty, this work tells us, is an inevitable aspect of both memory and representation.

Alward's Doppelganger comprises some 20 paintings and photograms, which explore the triangulated relationship between depiction, the object or person depicted, and the viewer. Employing subjects that range from Neanderthal man to Egyptian mummies to Communist functionaries purged by Stalin, he too grapples with the nature of representation. Most effective here are his photograms (produced by placing objects on light-sensitive paper), in which he ingeniously manipulates either poppy seeds or sand to reinvent and reinvestigate historic photographic images.

Less convincing are his paintings of blanked-out, weirdly morphed, or reconstructed faces and his shellac-on-plywood silhouettes of wild animals and humans in ill-defined confrontation. In the inevitable comparison, Alward's lacks the thematic and technical coherence of MacKenzie's. Still, both artists jog our thinking about likeness and portraiture--about the photograph as bridge between past and present.