Art Review: “Who is Joan Quinn?”

10_cornellartmuseum_joanquinn_rupert_jasen_smith.jpg

“Who is Joan Quinn?” is the name of the Cornell Museum’s newly opened exhibition, and it’s a question whose response is as mysterious and multifaceted as the artists comprising the show.

The most basic answer to that question is that Quinn has been an arts patron, muse and journalist for more than 35 years, a native Los Angelino who held an important post at Andy Warhol’s Interview magazine, and whose “Joan Quinn Interviews” program has spotlit artists and showbiz figureheads for 23 years on syndicated television. But that’s just a resume. To understand the spirit, the character and perhaps the soul of Joan Quinn, more than 300 artists have depicted her likeness, from Andy Warhol and Ed Ruscha to David Hockney and Shepard Fairey (pictured below). As the Cornell writes in its exhibition introduction, “Quinn is probably the most photographed, painted and sculpted persona in the history of contemporary art.”

Various exhibits of portraits plucked from this voluminous archive have been making their rounds at museums and galleries in recent years, including the Brand Library’s “Joan Quinn: Captured” in Los Angeles and the Fresno Art Museum’s “Rendering Homage: Portraits of a Patron.” Old School Square Curator Melanie Johanson’s version, which opens today, features more than 70 portraits scattered about the Cornell’s wooly two-story structure: a handful downstairs, single pieces on both stairwells, works covering walls and podia in three upstairs galleries.

Wandering the halls feels like you’re becoming a tourist in Quinn’s mind, if not in the stormy cerebrums of the 70-plus artists. Like a composer’s variations on a theme, the baseline image of Quinn’s radiant visage usually exists somewhere within the frame, but beyond that, all bets of off, with media ranging from painting to graphite to photography to sculpture to mixed media, in styles from Pop Art and impressionism to cubism, abstract expressionism and street art. The effect is a dizzying survey of 40 years of art movements filtered through an identical starting point.

This artistic gamut runs from the conservative to the outlandish, occasionally encompassing both extremes: Painter Peter S. Faulkner’s portrait is stunningly realistic and straightforward, except for his creepy/cheeky decision to three-dimensionalize the work by simulating Quinn’s “hands” gripping the frame itself.

The painting that’s most reverential in its realism is by Richard Bernstein, whose tight close-up is practically idolatrous. The most unadorned photograph is by Aldo Sessa, a stark black-and-white studio shot of a regal Quinn that suggests Arnold Newman’s essence-capturing portraits.

But the most fun pieces are the whimsical distortions of portraiture. Duggie Fields’ “All That Glitters” depicts Quinn as an animated superhero from a primitive video game, positioned on a “Tron”-like landscape. Sophia Gasparian transforms Quinn into what resembles a sardonic figure from a Japanese toy line. And Ian Falconer’s hilarious, propped-up faux bust of Quinn plays with notions of form, perspective and nudity.

Still other works deviate so much from what traditionalists would call portraits that they seem to be channeling aspects of Quinn outside the physical. Jean-Michel Basquiat’s severe pencil drawing is a portrait in fragments: bejeweled arms, a vertical tube labeled “esophagus,” strands of hair, two long-tailed monkeys. Suzan Woodruff’s “Pink Dragon” is a puff of purple haze, and Mike Chearney’s contribution is a series of vibrant abstract sinews with a facelike white blob in the center. Laddie John Dill’s “Child’s Play” is an illuminated glass tube, composed of argon gas and mercury, which strains for specificity to Quinn. The most obtuse of them all may be Frank Gehry’s rough paper maquette, which resembles pair of nuzzling catfish.

But I was most taken with the artists that have molded Quinn’s form, like putty, into their historical, cultural, religious and even ethnic visions. In Marie Lalanne Elfman’s painting, she’s an 18th century aristocrat complete with periwig. Robert Mapplethorpe captures a gleeful Cleopatra, multi-brooched and many-braceleted, in a flowing black gown (pictured below). Quinn dons papal headgear in Julie Green’s theistic portrait, and she could be a Mexican cantina owner in John Carr’s southwestern painting, or an island entertainer in Billy Al Bengston’s kitchsily Polynesian “Kaeka Koana.”

Lest the exhibition only consist only of others’ interpretations of Quinn, one wall is composed of seemingly personal candids of the artist, but even in these, Quinn is who you want her to be. In one shot, she conjures a Native American priestess, in another a 40s movie star in profile, in another an Old Master’s model reclining on a chaise lounge.

With so many Quinns depicted in one form or another, the question of the exhibition’s title remains, at the show’s circuitous end, enticingly inexplicable. Or maybe it’s existentially simple: She’s all of us.

“Who is Joan Quinn?” runs through Jan. 15 at the Cornell Museum at Old School Square, 51 N. Swinton Ave., Delray Beach. Admission is a suggested $5 donation. Call 561/243-7922 or visit oldschoolsquare.org.