Portraiture is a tenacious genre. When gestural abstraction was in, we had gooey fractured portraits of artists’ friends and chubby nude aunts; with Pop we had poster-like icons of movie greats; object art gave us up-close and clinical likenesses.
What’s interesting about the portraits of Nancy Pierson is that they don’t keep up with the times but slip back and forth in time. Pierson makes 4-foot-square portraits drawn from tiny anonymous mug shots taken of people who applied for vendor permits back in the ‘30s.
Without knowing their source, the works recall the gawky, earnest regionalism and off-handed psychological bite of Thomas Hart Benton. Pierson doesn’t plumb the personalities of sitters, she creates them. Embellishing dress, body language and mysterious hand gestures unique to each, Pierson invents recognizable personas and pathos. There’s a lovable independent granny type reading a treasured letter, a porscine salesman type, and the fellow in “Load” looks askance like a guilty union boss caught with his fingers in the coffers. Her technical chops aren’t bad either; it’s no easy matter to make huge expanses of forehead or fabric hold our attention, but Pierson’s surfaces do. (Ovsey Gallery, 126 N. La Brea Ave., to Oct. 8.)