By Isabel Smith ’24 (she/her)

 Deborah Luster, Levelle “Black” Tolliver (Judas), 2012-2013, Sentenced to Life, Angola Prison, Louisiana, Toned gelatin silver print mounted on dibond, 50×40 inches. Courtesy of the Artist and Jack Shainman Gallery.

True Likeness will be on view in the Van Every and Smith Galleries from October 29th, 2020 to February 21st, 2021 for Davidson students, faculty, and staff. The exhibition is a portrait collection, a representation of the complexity of selfhood, and a celebration of human experience, both at the individual level and as an expression of cultural identities. Through these portraits, True Likeness pairs a mix of unique cultural perspectives with the universal human conceptions of reality, illusion, and, most importantly, truth. This synthesis of ideas and outlooks fuses to give True Likeness a life of its own. It feels personal and intimate, yet it captures a distinctly American feeling — not in a sense of patriotism, but in a sense of its striking multiplicity, a kaleidoscope created from a diverse group of artists. The exhibition represents the contemporary American landscape — with artists from all over the country — and form a beautiful, intricate narrative, varied in both background and media.

I am an intern for the gallery, and the intimacy of this project has been very clear to me as True Likeness came together. Through working on this exhibition I’ve gotten a glimpse of who these artists are, a snapshot of their backgrounds, their inspiration, their goals, and their identities, as well as the identities of the people they are portraying. The portraits focus on how they see themselves, how others define them, who they want to be, and how they wish to be portrayed. Each work in the collection tells a story, whether through video, photography, painting, collage, sculpture, printmaking, drawing, or installation.

True Likeness features artwork by eighteen artists, including two large-scale images from photographer Deborah Luster’s series Passion Play: Levelle “Black” Tolliver (Judas) and James Blackburn (Roman Horse Soldier)”. The photos depict prisoners at Angola Prison, the largest maximum-security prison in the United States. Dressed in costumes from their theatrical production of The Life of Jesus Christ, the prisoners can, for a moment, escape their life at Angola and show the world the version of themself they wish to present. Luster both gives them an outlet for personal expression and paints a larger picture, one of the inhumanity and brutality of the American prison system, a dark shadow of America’s foundation and continued existence. 

Kameron Neal focuses on his own experiences as a Black queer man to depict narratives of Black queerness through video and stop-action photography. Neal’s work Eclipse in True Likeness endlessly loops, playing a stop-motion video of his body, silhouetted (though somewhat visible), and rotating in front of a circular white light; it reflects the evolving nature of identity, of being simultaneously seen and invisible, insignificant. All of the works feel human. Conceptions of who we are and community — real or otherwise — are put in conversation with each other by the artists via their portraits.

Lia Newman, Gallery Director and Curator, explains that plans for the exhibition began almost two years ago, in a different world.

“Things have obviously shifted in several ways, both due to the pandemic as well as in regard to what we hope is a pivotal racial reckoning. We originally planned the exhibition to open on the heels of the Republican National Convention, which was supposed to be a huge event in Charlotte. We wanted to present this diverse look at who we are — a counter to some of the rhetoric right now. Of course, the RNC didn’t take place to the scale we had thought it would, though the election — and the moment — has shaped up to be one of the most divisive of our time,” Newman said.

Now, we’re all in masks due to the COVID-19 pandemic and the subsequent mask mandate, and True Likeness both mirrors and juxtaposes the current moment, in which faces are abstracted, the most recognizable aspect of a person obscured. Identity as we often assign to each other — based on superficial characteristics — cannot exist. Hopefully, this can empower us to prioritize our shared humanity — as expressed in True Likeness — especially at a time when communities must come together and help each other. The exhibition is an achievement of art and thought, a reflection of ourselves both in this moment and in our future — where we can witness true likeness.

Isabel Smith ‘24 (she/her/hers) is an undecided major. She can be reached from comment at issmith@davidson.edu