Portrait | Frith Street Gallery

Portrait is a grab bag of a summer group show. It’s currently on at Frith Street Gallery on Golden Square. The notes claim that the exhibition was organised in celebration of the recent reopening of the National Portrait Gallery down the road. But there’s a will-this-do, end-of-term feel about this loosely-arranged showcase of famous names - the gallery represents Cornelia Parker, Fiona Tan and Daniel Silver, among others - just like there was with the show about bathers I talked about last week.

It’s the dog days of summer in gallery land, in other words. But of course that doesn’t mean there isn’t great art to see. The standout piece I saw this time around is by Polly Apfelbaum: a grid of faces arranged across the back wall of the gallery, which gives the sober white-walled space a pop of colour.

Polly Apfelbaum ‘Barn Faces’ (2021) Barn Faces (2021)

This is Apfelbaum’s tribute to folk art, specifically art from the groups of German speakers in her native state of Pennsylvania, which include the Amish people. They’re famous both for their elaborate illuminated books and simple colourful painted rosettes on their barns.

The origins of these round signs are obscure - one theory is that it’s derived from Alpine ancestors across the pond. But their meaning is clearer: they’re hex signs, pagan objects aimed at protecting the barns - and the animals and precious cargo inside - from evil spirits and demons. Their simple forms are gestures towards divine geometry. They appeal to something bigger.

You don’t need to know that (and I didn’t at the time) to appreciate the talismanic property of Apfelbaum’s crowd of smiling “barn faces”, as the artist calls them. Though the colours they’re painted in are bright and welcoming, there’s something in those dot eyes that says, stay away.

“Portrait speaks of our innate desire to understand and document our fellow human beings, whether real or imagined,” conclude the show notes. Apfelbaum’s faces seemed to me to be the furthest from my fellow human beings. So, by that measure, our journey to understanding them is the longest. Perhaps that’s why they stood out?

Portrait is at Frith Street Gallery (London). 07 July - 11 August 2023