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High Concepts: the talent of strangers

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Charles Goldman sat on a folding stool in front of the Art Institute on a recent chilly afternoon near a small sandwich board that read "Draw My Portrait. $1 Donation Offered. I Pay You." A little boy seated on a stool in front of Goldman was slowly and carefully executing a drawing. When the man with the boy commented on how fine the drawing was, Goldman agreed but also remarked that he was being made to look a bit like Howdy Doody. The boy finished and left without asking for money, but ran back a few minutes later to sign the drawing. Meanwhile another boy was working on a portrait of Goldman. He took only a few seconds, creating little more than a stick figure.

Goldman, 29, has been hanging out in public spaces downtown for the last month collecting portraits of himself drawn by passersby. He already has more than 200. Reactions vary. One man warned his eager son, "He just wants your money." Another man about Goldman's age said while drawing, "This must be a really great way to get dates." After finishing the man signed the portrait and included his phone number. "That's for the date," he said. Some people try to collect their dollar as fast as possible; others don't accept the money. Most, Goldman says, try their best at the drawing. But Goldman doesn't prefer one portrait to another: "None of them really look exactly like me, but all of them together might."

An MFA student at the University of Illinois at Chicago, Goldman will be exhibiting these drawings as part of his thesis project. But he says he's interested in the process, calling it a performance about vulnerability and exposure. "I'm exposing myself to whatever is going to come my way and I'm vulnerable to the way the sitter chooses to depict me." Goldman says he's a skillful yet unsatisfied representational painter who's now trying to distance himself from his "facility." Performance interests him because of its immediacy. "This is an act that's taking place in real time, in the present." Art should become "inseparable from life, from reality. For me art making is about an investigation of my own life and how it reverberates and manifests itself in society--how I can be one individual but can have experiences and feel things that are universal."

Goldman readily admits there's a narcissistic aspect to his project. "I'm trying to get strangers to depict me because I want to look at drawings of myself. But it's more complex than that. It's not about self-aggrandizement at all. Unlike Narcissus, I do recognize myself, and that brings me solace. It's not because I'm in love with my own image--it brings me comfort because it gives me proof of my existence."

Goldman isn't particularly social--"the possibility of my becoming invisible as a human being is very real"--but he says, "the drawings exist as proof of contact with other people. Nine times out of ten the contact is pretty superficial, yet even that is important to me."

Goldman will be in and around the Loop this weekend, soliciting drawings from bystanders. His portrait project will be exhibited for five days starting April 8 at Gallery 400, 400 S. Peoria. Call 996-6114 for more.

--Fred Camper

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Randy Tunnell.

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