Freiwald's portraits conflate narrative aspirations and conceptual impulses.
You could not mistake yourself or one of your friends if either of you
were his sitter, yet the identical passivity of each sitter is unnervingly
abstract and conceptually complicated. Rather than close us off, that
striking similarity exposes a range of complex possibilities. Freiwald's
watercolor portraits piercingly, yet almost nostalgically memorialize
everything physical, yet seemingly nothing emotional about his sitters.
There is a destabilizing disengagement between the paintings' minimalism
and their almost photographic detail, suggesting that the paintings' meanings
lie in the interstices between the narrative and the conceptual. Painting
from memory suggests that Freiwald recovers something more than mere representation.
Freiwald's portraiture is a slick surface from which easy definitions
slide away, heightened by the opposites they embody. They are intimate
yet alienating, present yet strangely absent. Other than the faces' terrains,
do we know more about the sitters after studying their portraits than
we did at first glance? Probably not, but why not? Freiwald has situated
them all in almost the same position on the paper, so that there are no
clues as to height or weight. A small swatch of their shirts shows on
each shoulder, yet not enough for the viewer to formulate a judgment about
clothing and its expressive possibilities. There are no additional visual
clues that might suggest anything but physical difference between them.
Freiwald's subjects, despite their variance in skin, hair, and eye color,
ethnicity, and gender, all share the exact same expression which is, stubbornly
and obtusely, a complete lack of expression. They seem to all inhabit
the same interior emotional space.
But their interiority becomes secondary to Freiwald's memory of them.
While painting sitters with whom he is less familiar, Freiwald may refer
to small studies he has made of the sitter for clarification. He understands
his relationship with the sitters to be a collaboration between them.
Passive rather than active, the collaboration is defined by the sitter's
ability to be intently scrutinized. Freiwald writes, "Usually it
takes some time for a sitter to feel confident having an incessant look
on him. To accept this situation and return the gaze is mainly what collaboration
means to me." (1) Passivity and activity commingle in Freiwald's
paintings, yet the opposites are never fully merged. They are merely balanced
against one another, effecting a visual conundrum of placidity and anxiety.
The meticulous exterior reveals nothing about the interior, and interiority
and exteriority share equal status in Freiwald's ambiguous, yet deliberate
Freiwald's portraits are unerringly alike. As extreme facial close-ups,
they present a landscape of luminous skin, hair, and eyes. No other details
such as clothing, pose difference, or background disrupt the paintings'
uniformity. Portraiture, something so private and sometimes painful to
the sitter because of the intense scrutiny, is by definition a transformative
experience. By painting from memory, in such an unforgiving medium as
watercolor, where the paint saturates the surface of the paper and is
unchangeable without destroying the surface, Freiwald melds his memory
of the sitter—maybe they were great friends, maybe they were strangers—to
his portrait of her or him. The resulting portraits are isolating yet
intimate, and the sitters seem alienated yet oddly present.
All the paintings are untitled, so no naming gives the sitter an identity
for us to associate with. The only deliberately chosen characteristic
that renders them unique from one another in style and self-articulation
is their hair. Quirky asymmetrical bangs or a choppy color job reveal
some information, lean as it may be, that we have come to associate with
self-expression. But then, self-expression is not the goal of these portraits.
Freiwald understand that the body is a site of variously complicated meanings
and messages, not just physiological facts.
Incertitude extends even to
gender in some of Freiwald's portraits. From time to time, his subtle
painterly offerings are not enough to determine the sitter's gender. Hair
and dress are ambiguous, and of course neither is gender specific. Furthermore,
no other social referents ground the sitter in or out of the socio-economic
and cultural centers or margins, unless one considers beauty. And beauty
determines social position. Freiwald's sitters, then, all belong to a
centered, privileged class. Under Freiwald's even-handed treatment, they
look strikingly perfect. They are beautifully without blemish and they
glow with good health.
What is it, then, that Freiwald hopes to impart about his sitters, singular
individuals, and their/his portraits? Parsing the question suggests that
what Freiwald wants to convey about his sitter is entirely distinct from
what he wants to say with their portraits. Sitter and portrait are not
seamless, congruent, or conflated strategies as Freiwald merges anamnesis,
or recollections, and strict representation. Memory and its retrieval
are an imperfect, but often-used hedge against the grief of separation
or loss. These existential memory portraits suggest the beingness of the
portrayed and portrayer. Meaning is lodged in the idea of their existence
and Freiwald's ability to remember them. Since reclamation of their image
is equivalent to his recovery of their being, the portraits are evidence
of the sitters' lives and by association, of Freiwald's. According to
art historian Sarah Wilson, "A portrait is not only both object and
representation. It exists during its creation, as perception, and in memory,
in reproduction, in description and as text; in its own time, through
time and beyond time." (2) Freiwald's sitters and their portraits
are autonomous, sustainable, and remembered.