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Review: 'Familia' at Averitt Center

Folk art display evokes warmth, verve

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Posted: March 22, 2013 7:45 p.m.
Updated: March 22, 2013 7:44 p.m.
Review: 'Familia' at Averitt Center

Averitt Center patrons pause to admire 'Girl in Front of Ty Ty Mansion,' part of the 'Familia' exhibit on display at the gallery.

What is it about folk art that beckons us? It feels so familiar, honest, earnest. This early American style is so very “real” in spite of its intentionally flat, two-dimensional simplicity — or maybe because of it. All I know for sure is that walking among the folk portraits by Ananda Balingit-LeFils evokes that comfortable warmth with contemporary verve. As the song says, “everything old is new again” in “Familia,” on the folk art exhibit at the Averitt Center through April 27.   
    A good place to start is “Girl in Front of Ty Ty Mansion.” The face of the solemn 7-year-old is intricately drawn, with inquisitive eyes, chubby cheeks and auburn curls escaped from her single, tight braid. Her white blouse and quilt-pattern skirt look almost like paper cutouts, filled with detail but no dimension. Then comes the quirky human touch: a pet possum in the girl’s arms. Yes, a possum. Balingit-LeFils calls it “tender awkwardness,” the blend of formal and personal, posed and authentic that defines folk portraits and gives them their timeless appeal.  
The genre has its roots in Colonial America when itinerant artists traveled from town to town peddling their portraits to ordinary townsfolk.
“They were the Olan Mills of their time,” Balingit-LeFils said with a laugh.
To make the portraits affordable, the painters often arrived with a stack of canvases that were already complete, except for the faces. Additional props – a book, a flower, a dog, or even a possum – could be added to suggest personality traits.  
In “Familia,” Balingit-LeFils turns that tradition to her own purposes. She explains that almost every work directly references a known historic folk portrait, but scenes are reimagined to reveal her present-day subjects, who are family, friends and the artist herself. Her “Self Portrait” provides a tutorial. A young girl in a flouncing dress, hugging a white cat is reminiscent of a work by Ammi Phillips, one of the best known artists of the folk genre. The “tender awkwardness” remains, but with a decidedly modern twist. Instead of conventional somber shades of oil paint, we see bright pink and purple gouache, an opaque form of water color. The detailed face is drawn in graphite black and white. Even the white cat has been reincarnated with a suspiciously Cheshire smile.  
Of the 16 paintings’ subjects, Balingit-LeFils said, “Some are biographical, some are autobiographical and some are archetypical.” 
Even a glance at “Hubris” lets you know which category it’s in. A preteen boy sporting a camouflage jacket and rifle rests his boot on the snout of an alligator longer than the boy is tall. The youth’s cocky smile and the gator’s wide open eyes suggest dangerously misplaced confidence.
As you take in the scenes of each painting, be sure to lean in and appreciate the elaborate detailing in the clothing and the backgrounds – a skirt covered with minute nursery rhyme characters, toile curtains filled with French peasants, eyelet lace, floral wallpaper. At first, you’ll think it’s a collage of patterned paper, but look again. Every rose petal, bird wing and miniature rooftop is painted stroke by stroke. 
Perhaps, in the end, what’s so appealing about Balingit-LeFils’ take on folk portraiture is that it allows us to see and appreciate the “tender awkwardness” in our own time, in our own friends and family, and even ourselves. It’s the story of us, just as we are. And that’s something to smile about.

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