Dennis Shelton can’t stop seeing familiar faces, even when he’s out of the country.
“Whenever I’m on vacation, I always run into at least three people that look exactly like someone else back in the states,” he said. “And that fascinates me that there are people with the same body type, same face, same hair, walking the same Earth.”
Instead of shrugging it off, Shelton decided to tap into his observation the only way he knows how — through his art.
Using pictures from discarded books and magazines, Shelton carefully joined three different faces into one using similar backgrounds in each of the five different portrait sets he made. These sets are now all part of Shelton’s “Cubist Portraits: The Pieces of Our Puzzle,” an exhibition on display at The Riverdale Y’s Gallery 18 through Aug. 5.
Shelton’s work on display is inspired by more than just past vacations.
It’s inspired by the cubist art movement of the early 20th century, and in similar projects he had his students create when he taught art at the former John F. Kennedy High School between 1979 and 2015.
The main intention in putting “Cubist Portraits” together was to “create a harmonized show and not to have one piece stand out,” Shelton said.
“One of the goals that I was trying to portray is, number one, that we’re more similar than different,” he said. “And, number two, we’re more alike than we are different.”
While constructing these portraits had its difficulties in the beginning, there was another obstacle Shelton faced in his artistic process.
“The true challenge was creating backgrounds from various different sources to make it appear as one background,” he said.
Maria Neuda is Gallery 18’s new curator, taking over just two months after former curator Joyce Dutka passed away. She describes Shelton’s exhibition as a “triple threat.”
“It’s unique,” Neuda said. “It’s beautiful, and it’s serious.”
Neuda feels one glance at each piece just isn’t enough.
“This is a show I have to look at and I need time to look at in order to get what’s going on,” she said. “You need time to really get it, and that’s partially what intrigues me about it.”
Neuda added that in her experience, Shelton’s portraits have the power to invoke curiosity.
“They look out at you and they ask you for a response,” she said. “Very often with a show, you look at it and you have your fill of it. But these say, ‘What do you think of me? What do you think of this?’”
Shelton only realized his work had that effect once he was finished.
“After doing the series, I’ve noticed that the images are really speaking to you and look at you and forming questions in your mind, which I didn’t see coming,” Shelton said. “They’re looking directly at you.”
While some people might say a portrait in the show looks like Eleanor Roosevelt or some other famous person, Shelton guarantees there was no intention in trying to make the portraits look like anyone, and that “everyone is going to see a feature in the face that triggers a memory.”
“They’re just people,” he said.
Shelton can’t wait for more people to stop by Gallery 18 in the coming weeks. When he recently hung up his work in preparation for the exhibition, he noticed just how many different people were intrigued with what they saw.
“Every age group that walked through stopped and looked,” Shelton said. “That’s a positive response that it was strong enough for them to stop.”
What excites Shelton the most is hearing reactions from kids.
“I enjoy hearing children’s responses because children are truthful,” he said. “They’re going to say what they feel.”
But most of all, Shelton wants people to leave his exhibition feeling like they’ve just seen something familiar away from home.
“I hope people engage with each other,” he said, “and share stories that these portraits will evoke in their memories.”