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They heart Frida Kahlo

“frida kahlo: images of an icon” features 60 artists paying tribute to the artist / by alec clayton

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You’ve got to love Frida Kahlo — if not for her art, then for her outrageous sense of style and her superhuman courage.

“Frida Kahlo: Images of an Icon” at the Tacoma Art Museum is not so much about Kahlo the artist as it is about Kahlo the woman. There are some 60 portraits of the artist in this show, many by famous artists such as the great Diego Rivera, whom she married, divorced and remarried; Imogen Cunningham and Edward Weston; and Nickolas Murray, with whom she carried on an affair throughout most of her short life.

There are no works by Kahlo in the exhibition, but her flair for the theatrical and her knowledge of photography is very much on display. She was never a passive subject. She actively took part in every photograph, carefully choosing settings, clothing, jewelry and hair. She was a mythic figure, and she actively created and promoted her own image and legend. There are no candid shots in this show. Every shadow, every doorway, every arch and mirror was carefully framed in active collaboration between Kahlo and the photographers.

Most of the shots are in black and white, but there are a few — primarily those by Murray — in glorious color. And the museum did a fine job of painting wall panels in colors that Kahlo and Rivera used in their home. A brilliant pink wall behind a group of Murray’s photos is especially thrilling.

Kahlo was born in 1907, but she always claimed to have been born in 1910 when the Mexican Revolution began — one of her many ways of building her own legend. She had severe physical disabilities throughout her life and endured some 32 surgeries. A tragic accident when she was 18 left her permanently crippled. Much of her later years were spent in hospital beds. She died at 47. Her politics, her exotic lifestyle and her tempestuous marriage to Rivera were the stuff of legend. She was the subject of most of her own art and painted many iconic self-portraits. “I paint self-portraits because I am so often alone … because I am the subject I know best,” she said.

The exhibition is arranged according to themes: Frida and her family, Frida as an iconic figure (often posed in doorways and archways in exotic Mexican gowns), Frida as an artist (at work in her studio or posing in front of her own paintings), Frida with animals, Frida being playful — and finally, sick Frida painting from her hospital bed.

Frida Kahlo is one of the most famous woman artists in the world, and her fame may make it difficult to objectively view her art. Personally, I find her life story more fascinating than her art and her art, as colorful as it is (both literally and figuratively), more fascinating than these gray-tone photographs. They are good photographs, but after seeing 20 or 30 portraits of the same person it’s hard to get excited about 30 more.

But just as you think you’ve seen enough, you come to the “back end” of the gallery where there is an adjunct to this exhibition called “Northwest Visions of Frida Kahlo.” This ancillary exhibition features drawings, paintings, sculpture and glass art by Northwest artists who were inspired by Kahlo. Many of these — most noticeably paintings by Alfredo Arrequin — are portraits of Kahlo done in a style appropriated from her. There is a beautiful portrait of Kahlo by Randy Hays that is painted over photographs. There is a massive portrait head of Kahlo by Scott Fife, which is part of his ongoing series of celebrity portraits done in the style of Roman portrait busts in cardboard, glue and screws (museum patrons know Fife from his one-person show at TAM in 2004 and from his giant puppy sculpture that graces the museum lobby). And there’s an amazing and almost indescribable inkjet print by Jim Riswold called “Frida’s Owies.”

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