Review: Aliza Nisenbaum at Tate Liverpool

Aliza Nisenbaum

Review: Aliza Nisenbaum at Tate Liverpool

Travelling to Tate Liverpool on Tuesday 20th July 2021 to see a show I’ve wanted to see since its launch last year was a nervy experience. Aliza Nisenbaum’s paintings of key workers began early in the pandemic, and share clear stories of dedication, recovery and resilience.

So the day after lockdown lifting, travelling on a largely unmasked train, and through a mostly unmasked city centre to an exhibition marking the sacrifices of those who have kept the city ticking over was unsettling.

But it made the experience more poignant somehow; more relevant to the current conversation around individual responsibility. Everyone in the gallery was masked. I don’t know if other visitors stuck to that through the rest of their day, but here it seemed like a mark of respect from the viewer to the subject.

The portraits are of key workers, many of which, by the time this exhibition was hung in December, had not seen their families for seven months. The show feels like an archive, not just of their work, but of an artist’s gratitude. In years to come there will be photography archives held all over the world, all maintaining the emotion of the moment, but few will have the power of this show, which goes beyond documentary in a way that shares character rather than just situation.

Portraiture can often fall in to the trapping question of “would a photo not have sufficed?” but the emotional response of the artist here is absolutely key. Photography is capable of framing subjects, and lighting them to the artists’ wishes, but Aliza Nisembaum’s reading of her sitters is uniquely hers. I’m not a fan of ‘painterly’ it’s lazy terminology, but the distinct colour choices add a tone to the collective portraits which are unique to what is, on the face of it, quite traditional portraiture.

The group portraits, created through interviews and conversations with the sitters, seem more like landscapes (not just because of their orientation). They have a history to them that seems vast, despite the pace of production.

Part of the power of this show is in the films though. The paintings are intense, condensed results of a process. The films invite you into Aliza Nisenbaum’s studio, and into the emotional and, at times, light hearted conversations with her sitters. Having a chance to see this part of the process heightens the importance of the key workers, and clarifies their individuality. These aren’t part of a brand of key workers, they are people who have made huge sacrifices to keep us going.

This show isn’t a clap on a doorstep. It’s a human response and a personal thank you from an artist who clearly cares, and knows exactly what she owes the key workers who sat for her.

Words, Patrick Kirk-Smith
Aliza Nisenbaum continues at Tate Liverpool until 5th Sept ‘21