Marisa Portolese, Kinship as a Practice: In the Studio with Notman — Laurie Milner

[Winter 2019]

By Laurie Milner

Kinship, broadly defined, is a core concept in Montreal artist Marisa Portolese’s photographic practice. We see kinship, in the context of family relations, enacted in Antonia’s Garden (2007–11), a series of portraits, still lifes, and landscapes that traces the psychic effects of trauma and the will to heal in three generations of Portolese’s maternal family. Large-scale colour photographs show family members – distant and still – among tangles of weeds and grasses, in crumbling interiors and aseptic hospice rooms. Things – ornate heirlooms, blistered and puckered with age; the intact skeleton of a horse, its bones brittle and bare – convey the same ceaseless solitude that we see in the human portraits. The encounters are all staged, but no less real for that reason. Portolese is aware of the constituent nature of her photographic interventions and mindful of their effects; we can sense her reassuring presence in the candour with which her subjects perform themselves and witness her empathetic participation in the redemptive story that unfolds. Across the series, we observe the concept of family, as a pre-given set of relations, quietly eclipsed by kinship, as the active and abiding practice of connection.

Kinship as connection is integral to the three-part Belle de Jour series that Portolese produced between 2002 and 2016. The models for the photographs are her female friends, colleagues, and acquaintances; many are from Montreal and many have creative practices of their own. In Belle de Jour I (2002) and Belle de Jour II (2014), Portolese stages the models in art-historically informed images: sensual, forthright, and saturated with colour, the photographs evoke the structure and atmosphere of unnamed classical and modern paintings while affirming the sovereignty, grace, and vulnerability of the female models…

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