[media-credit name="Manjari Sharma Anastasia, The Shower Series, 2009. Courtesy of Gallery 339." align="alignright" width="300"][/media-credit]

A welcome blast of cool air greets you as you enter Gallery 339 — an inconspicuous space tucked into a quiet corner of Rittenhouse. You aren’t immediately confronted by the personalities that make up About Face — an exhibit revolving around contemporary portraiture. The subjects, for the most part, seem content with drowsily lining the sterile walls of the room they wallpaper. Despite the number of diverse personas and visions gathered in one small space, that initial chill does not dissipate.

Working to the back end of the exhibit in a connecting room, one is immediately struck by the piercing blue eyes pinpointed in Tina Barney’s oversized Jill and I. The engagement lacking in the first gallery is usurped by a visceral feeling of confrontation. The temperature shifts, and the unsettling aura is overwhelming, nonetheless driving a sort of stand–off. In its atmospheric defiance, the portrait prompts one of the few true interactions between viewer and work in the exhibit.

Facing Jill and I on an equally grand scale is George Krause’s Waitress, Anguila — without a doubt the most stunning display of artistry and inspiration on view. More like a memory than a captured moment in time, it delicately documents the remarkable connection between artist and muse. Tenderly depicted in this celestial light, the photographer betrays his adoration for the subject, which permeates and transcends the portrait.

Though not without its share of interesting, and even beautiful works of art, the seemingly random placement of works feels uninspired. None of these subjects seem to know each other, nor interact. The space they keep from one another is roughly the same they keep from observers. It feels like you are in a room full of strangers, few of whom are interested in making themselves known to you.

The icy atmosphere can largely be chalked up to the lack of a unifying thesis. There are kernals of good ideas here and there — subjects stretching the limits of persona, progressive mediums that redefine photography — but none constitute an overarching statement. It’s difficult to judge offending portraits individually, so discordant is their arrangement.

A few other standouts include Rafael Soldi’s Bajo Tu Manto, and Phillip Toledano’s me and dad. Both of these works reach out on an intimate level, offering a non–exploitative peak into a deeply layered history. These, along with Tina and I and Waitress, Anguila merit a trip down to Rittenhouse alone. Once you separate these personas from the jumble in which they are assembled, they shine as if they were the sole performers on stage. On view through Sep. 10, 2011 at Gallery 339.