Alice Neel, The Oregonian
Alice Neel at Portland Art Museum, Portland, OR
Originally published in The Oregonian

More than 25 years after her death in 1984, American painter Alice Neel is once again capturing the art world's attention. 

In part, the resurgence is because of Phoebe Hoban's new book on the artist's extraordinary life, "The Art of Not Sitting Pretty," as well as the traveling retrospective "Painted Truth," which concluded its tour -- from Houston to London and, finally, Malmo, Sweden -- at the Moderna Museet earlier this week . 

But the current milieu of contemporary art, in which mere minor allusion to something substitutes as actual knowledge, has renewed interest in Neel's probing oil portraits, which she painted with the insight and sensitivity of an aura reader. 

Born in 1900, Neel and her lifelong commitment to figuration must have seemed hopelessly out of step with the dominant movements of her day -- specifically Abstract Expressionism, which, for a time, rendered all other modes of painting irrelevant. But the portraits she painted of friends, family and fellow artists, seated in the threadbare furniture of her apartment, were about less-conventional goals than capturing a convincing likeness. 

She sought to unravel some essential aspect of her sitters, wiring their gestures and expressions with the psychological depth she gleaned from observing them for hours at a time. Today, in an era when detached conceptualism and winking art historical reference approximate guts, Neel's wide-eyed confrontation with emotional complexity is like a blood transfusion. In the art world, both artist and audience need reminding, from time to time, that they are human and that art should reflect some aspect of that experience. 

"Inside/Outside," the very minor but strangely unpublicized show of eight Neel paintings at the Portland Art Museum, offers one such lesson in humanity.  None of the paintings in the show is among her best work, nor do any rival "The Pregnant Woman," which hangs on the third floor of the museum's contemporary wing. But within this group, which ranges from her brooding and bleak German Expressionist-influenced streetscapes of the 1930s to the bright and airy, post-Fauvism of the 1960s, there are myriad ways to appreciate Neel's wise eye and visceral brush technique. 

The best painting here, "Carol Brand with Cat," 1953, offers a simple subject: a pigtailed girl holding her cat. It seems an entirely pedestrian work until one begins to notice Neel's quirks: the girl's doll-like face, as freckled and full-cheeked as Howdy Doody; the perfect torque of the cat's wriggling body; the way the pinstripes of the girl's skirt seem to flow over the top of the fabric, like rivulets of water. Compositionally, the girl's yellow blouse is a blast of vivacious youth, but the periphery of cool blue-gray encroaches the figure, likely coding the hardships of adulthood Neel must have felt awaited her. 

Another highlight, "Thanksgiving" from 1965, is similarly conflicted. In that painting, we peer down into the basin of a sink and into the unstuffed cavity of a turkey, as a soap dish, a two-tone sponge and an aquamarine can of Ajax line the counter. The ease with which the scene is recognized and identified with allows the painting to work on viewers in waves. First, the warmth of such an intimate, relatable memory hits, but, after a moment, the subtext of domestic drudgery and traditional "women's work" leaves a chill. It is easy to imagine Neel hunched over the sink and discovering an existential abyss. 

While the "outside" paintings here lack the emotional heft of the portraits, they foreground her technique, such as the blunt daubs and sweeping arcs commingling in "New Jersey Water Tower, Blue," 1963. They also hint at a subtle but sophisticated sense of formal symbolism, which goes practically unnoticed in the unfiltered pathos of her human subjects. 

"Riverside Drive," 1965, for instance, focuses on a shady side street separating a heavily wooded park, painted with a loose Fauvist style, and a monumental municipal building, sketched out with rigid geometry. Here, Neel seems to respond to her place in the art world, sandwiched between the turn-of-the-century European masters who influenced her and her high Modern contemporaries. Both traditions may have overshadowed her at the time, but today there's an essential, if less-traveled path in 20th-century art history that belongs to her alone.