An artist’s day job can deeply inform what they make during studio time. Evidence lies in the creative output of those, famous and otherwise, who paid their rent as accountants, chemists, graphic designers, window dressers, arts administrators and kindergarten teachers. Mary Porterfield is an occupational therapist and talented portraitist, deeply committed to rendering her elderly, infirm subjects with equal parts respect and clarity. Her medium, sepia-toned oils on translucent sheets, allows for blurring, shifting and accumulation, and it seems especially fitting for her most ambitious work yet, a series of life-size, cut-out depictions of her father, who has Parkinsonism, and her mother, who is his sole caretaker, a situation made only harder by the pandemic. On display in FIGURES/FACES, a group exhibition at the Evanston Art Center, “Pushing Back the Sea” functions like a narrative frieze, tracking the increasing degeneration of Porterfield’s father’s body and the correspondingly heavier load her mother bears. By the end of the cycle, her elegant, strong mother is nearly underwater, a metaphor so apt it figured in a nightmare I had years ago about my own grandmother when she was the caretaker for my grandfather, who had dementia. Nana would have recognized herself and Papa here, in these two figures of Porterfield’s, and she would have felt seen.
—Lori Waxman 2021-04-14 11:11 AM