The title of the Gateway Arts Center’s 39th Street Gallery exhibition Face Value is somewhat tongue-in-cheek. The portraits presented by Bryan Hoffman and David Marquart of LGBT youth, male escorts and erotic masseurs demand that the viewer delve beneath the surface of the works in order to glimpse the sitters as individuals without labels. While the two artists approach their craft from different painting styles, they are united in their attempt to capture their sitters’ personalities with a candor devoid of overt sentimentality.
The majority of Bryan Hoffman’s subjects are lesbian, gay or transgender youth with whom he has interacted in his local community. The Michigan-based painter takes a realistic bent with his sitters’ features, most of whom gaze unsentimentally directly at the viewer. These emotive faces rich in detail are offset by backgrounds of mottled colors with no discernible horizon or traditional sense of depth. Hoffman repetitively uses two compositional devices to disorient the viewer, forcing us to dig more deeply into the work. First, the artist’s penchant for positioning his subject off-center, such as in Love Me, Bridget #1 (2008), presents the figure as if almost floating in space. This disruption is heightened by the artist’s repeated use of circular forms within the work to intentionally blur the line between foreground and background. For example, in works such as Miss Dazzling Detroit (2016) and Krystina Connects the Dots (2017), circles hover simultaneously behind and in front of the sitter, unhinging the viewer’s ability to visually position the sitter within the picture plane. These circles—essentially forms without beginning or end, coupled with the sitter divorced from a recognizable background—suggest the youths are in the midst of emotional and spiritual journey whose outcome is yet to be determined.
Washington, DC-based artist David Marquardt takes a similar approach to Hoffman in his portraits of male escorts and erotic masseurs. Recognizing the social connotations implicit in this business, Marquardt seeks to cast his subjects as whole persons, defined by much more than just their career choice. The artist takes a more impressionistic approach, with faces composed of visual brushstrokes that become more mottled towards the edges of the works. Soft lighting subtly draws the eye towards the sitters’ faces, such as in Tarzan (2015) and Junior (2015) where warm cream tones on one side of the face are contrasted with very subtle blues. This use of light and shadowing grounds the sitter within the picture plane, even in instances when the background appears abstract. As a result, the viewer’s gaze is drawn primarily to the men’s faces, and although their individual life journeys are dissimilar, Marquardt is able to coax out an impression of grounded masculinity within each of them.
While painted in differing styles, the two artists complement one another in their differing treatments of foreground and background. As curator John Paradiso notes, Marquardt’s models are ground in place whereas Hoffman’s are ground in space. Both artists position their sitters within a hazy, indistinct and unknowing landscapes mostly devoid of visual ques to help up understand their journeys. In this regard, both present people in transition, stripped of details or social markers. That said, their treatment of foreground and background, while only subtly different, creates very different emotional responses. Some of this may be due to stage of life (Marquardt’s models are generally older) yet one gets the sense that Hoffman is attempting to encompass a swath of time within his sitter’s life story while Marquardt is capturing the immediate present. In both bases, the result is unflinching and unapologetic.
Face Value is currently on view at the 39th Street Gallery through December 21. The gallery located in Gateway Arts Center in Brentwood, MD. For more information about the exhibition, visit the gallery’s website here.