The unsettling contrast between a stark, contoured jawline and ill-defined eyes immediately grabs your attention, in the first of 15 enticingly ambiguous portraits by Dutch artist Hannah van Bart. One by one, they seem like images of stolid, bourgeois citizens from the past, dressed in respectable flowery blouses or jackets and vests. But they elude easy interpretation, thanks to Van Bart’s provocative pairing of bold line and abstract brushwork.
While Van Bart’s prosaic subjects, sourced from found photos, resemble August Sander’s early-20th-century photographs of ordinary Germans, she allows only fleeting indications of who they are. Young and for the most part robust, they exude capability, but are also posed as if they were biding time, suggesting a lack of agency. Yet it is this appearance of stasis that makes them seem tantalizingly dramatic.
Van Bart pushes the low-key mystery of her sitters through puzzling gender ambiguities, as in the profile of a woman with mannish features bearing the assertive title She Knows. Meanwhile, Young Woman depicts a girl in a man’s suit, whose salmon-colored pin-striped jacket matches the wallpaper behind her, making her seem to shrink from view.
One of the show’s most enigmatic paintings likewise matches up its bright green background with the tones of a young man’s outfit, but he’s no wallflower. His jacket’s splayed collar aggressively fills the canvas, while his tight-lipped reserve is undone by a look straining to communicate.