By K. Mitchell Snow
Laments over the demise of the “traditional” portrait have been penned at least since the days my great-grandfather sat before a camera, head held firmly in a brace to prevent him from moving, in the makeshift studio of an itinerant photographer. These complaints have come to nothing. Rather than destroy portraiture, photography democratized it and expanded its reach. It added a more accessible medium to its range of possibilities, nothing more.
Now that digital “selfies,” from the banal to the libidinous to the shocking, pour by the millions a day onto the Internet, we would seem ripe for a fresh outbreak of despair over the future of portraiture. Given the glut of likenesses that dominate the increasingly anti-social “social media,” subscribers to the notion “the dose makes the poison” might be justified in their pessimism.
Washington D.C’s National Portrait Gallery’s third edition of the Outwin Boochever Portrait Competition provides a useful corrective to any suspicions prompted by this tidal wave of Internet imagery. The 48 works of contemporary portraiture on view—selected from more than 3,000 entries—represent an intriguing continuation of the ongoing trend toward the democratization of portrait-making begun by photography.
Although both the media and conceptual approaches represented among the finalists may range widely, the exhibition also represents a kind of meritocracy. The commitment to both mastery and renovation of this highly traditional form is consistently evident throughout. The phrase tour-de-force frequently comes to mind to describe the impact of the works themselves.
Leslie Adams’ charcoal-on-paper Sensazione: A Self Portrait is a particularly compelling example of this union of technical virtuosity and contemporary reality. The artist’s profile is stunningly lit, illuminated by a medical light box behind her which holds image scans of a human brain. Partially obscured in the shadows on the table before her is a self portrait of Leonardo da Vinci. If he would have been mystified by the technology it represents, he certainly would have understood the message conveyed by the cross-sections of the human brain that illuminate the room.
The highly detailed drawing of the image itself is accompanied by equally accomplished—if more straightforward—representations of optical and anatomical illustrations on the accompanying frame. A photo-realistic eye chart rendered in high definition at the base of the frame serves as a sort of predella—or framing picture that comments on the image above—contrasting with the flowing script nearby. It is a quote in Italian from Michelangelo: “A man draws with his brain and not with his hands.”
The Renaissance provides a point of departure for many other works on view, and, despite their varied approaches to what might be considered as their respective source material, all of them share a distinctive urge to comment on contemporary artistic trends. Ginny Stanford’s self portrait in acrylic, The Birth of Inez Imake, displays the same reflective spirit that marks the faces of saints in what used to be called “Italian primitives,” those late Medieval and early Renaissance fresco and panel painters. A viewer from the 14th century would have no problem interpreting the strip of gold leaf that covers the right third of the panel as a marker of the Spiritual—Inez Imake is an expression of Stanford’s internal reality –even if the form it takes would have been an alien one. Reduced to its formal essence, the composition is as elegant a juxtaposition of an oval and a rectangle as any 1960s Minimalist could hope for.
Martha Mayer Erlebacher’s unflinching Self Portrait of her post-chemotherapy baldness would have undoubtedly shocked later generations of Northern Renaissance artists. This particular expression of reality would have been unfamiliar to the symbolic language they employed. Indeed, one wonders what sins they would have attributed to the condition she depicts. They would, however, have undoubtedly understood her obsessive attention to detail with its brilliantly articulated skin, textile and background textures.
Subsequent eras in art history also make themselves felt. The luminous bed linens and luxurious furnishings of Vincent Giarrano’s City Girl recall works from the “Golden Age” of Dutch painting, while its tattooed occupant places the image firmly within our own era. The bravura brushwork that creates a “hoodie” in a few slashes of paint to frame the bruised and bloodied face of artist Sean Cheetham in his Champagne Wishes & Caviar Dreams evokes a different “Golden Age” of painting, that of 17th-century Spain. Painted to memorialize the results of a particularly violent hockey game, the work also recalls the highly contemporary dystopias of the otherwise unregenerate classicist, painter Odd Nerdrum.
Nineteenth-century photography provides a particularly rich seam of material for consideration. Heidi Fancher based her color photograph For Delia on a photograph of a slave by that name taken in South Carolina in 1850 to illustrate a physiognomy text. The lighting emphasizes the contrasts between the whites of her subject’s eyes and her skin, while the color print process allows Fancher to reproduce the effects created by the uneven processing common to early photography. The combination of lighting and print processes reveals the subtle color variations of her model’s hands, underlining the ideological basis of the source and deconstructing its hypothesis by recording her uniqueness.
Kelly Anderson Staley takes a strikingly different approach to capturing his subject’s humanity in Kevin, a pigment print from wet plate colloidon tintype. Adopting a more modern printing technology allows Staley to capture the physical characteristics of the outmoded tintype process at a scale that would be otherwise nearly impossible. Unlike the imposed mode of presentation that was central to Francher’s photograph, Kevin selected the pose he wanted and practiced it in a mirror to ensure he had perfected it. The resulting contrast between these two antiquated approaches to photography, both of which feature African Americans, could not be more compelling. These works have been hung near each other, eliciting one of the most interesting of the many visual conversations this well-installed exhibition creates.
Photographer Louie Palu references the impact that 19th-century photography had on the social understanding of war in the otherwise entirely contemporary war photograph Night Raid. Bathed in the eerie blue of the emergency cabin light of a Medvac helicopter, Palu captured both a compelling portrait of a horribly wounded individual—so wrenching yet so shocking that one cannot look away—and a symbol of war in the early 21st century.
Not all of the exhibition’s art historical references are to the remote past. Chuck Close—renowned 1970s and ‘80s artist who continues to work today—casts a very large shadow over the show. Several of the portraits take his conceptual, process-derived, approach to creating larger-than-life portraits as points of departure. All of the artists invoke the illusory “photo realistic” result of Close’s approach to image making, but none of them adopt the unsettling, objectifying lack of expression that is the hallmark of his best-known works.
Erik Hougen’s massive watercolor of his father, John H.—while clearly a photo-based work, painted by reproducing the multiple color layers of the CMYK process that Close has used to such great effect—does not seek to be perceived as a photo-mechanical product. Instead, drips of watercolor paint trickle beyond the confines of the face he has captured, clearly declaring its genesis as a handmade object. Hougen’s use of extremely thin washes of paint, another Close trait, gives the work an ethereal, faded feel rather than evoking a freshly printed magazine page. It is his father’s sad, wistful expression, however, that sets the work apart. The resulting combination of medium and mood conveys the fragility of the human condition in a way that lies outside the conceptual framework of Close’s work.
Bly Pope’s ink and graphite drawing Maryana comes closest to matching Close’s deadpan aesthetic, but the ravages of age have accentuated both the natural asymmetries of her subject’s face and the misalignment of her eyes, making it impossible to regard her dispassionately. By contrast, Ray DiCapua’s charcoal on paper Marie, which also features a woman of a certain, albeit much younger, age adopts a certain ironic regard to her viewers that is far more provocative than the nudity she covers with both arms.
Modesty2, Lynn Davison’s self portrait in oils, bears superficial resemblance to another noted Modernist, John Coplan and his photographic exploration of his aging physique. Coplan’s focus is, however, on the abstract, formal implications of the deterioration of his physical self while Davison’s representation of her own aging flesh is a psychological document. She accepts, and presents, her aging flesh with a degree of integration absent from Coplan’s work. The work’s title encapsulates a further contrast in their approaches, as Davison shields her body and her face as she captures its reality rather than baldly exposing it as Coplan does.
This emphasis on unidealized flesh pervades the entire exhibition. In addition to the examples already cited, Tun Ping Wang’s large-scale pastel Undefined #2 uses the blemishes on a young man’s face as a formal compositional element, effectively moving the viewer’s eye across the work’s surface from pimple to pimple. The left eye of the young man in Megan Ledbetter’s black-and-white photograph Untitled from the Loveland Series is cast in the tangled thicket’s shadow while the right eye pops, an altogether chilling evocation.
Despite the physical imperfections on view, exhibition juror Peter Frank’s assertion that this selection of contemporary portraiture looks like America doesn’t quite ring true. Two imbalances were particularly striking. Hispanics, who account for more than 15 percent of the nation’s population, are completely absent. Conversely, Americans of Japanese descent, who represent only a fraction of a percentage point of the nation’s population, account for nearly 10 percent of the artists juried into the exhibition.
Sequoyah Aono’s Self Portrait created from scraps of wood he found cast off in the streets of New York received the jury’s third place award. Although the rough-hewn nature of the artist’s hair, T-shirt, blue jeans and tennis shoes bears a superficial resemblance to the carvings of Stephan Balkenhol, he had rendered the face, arms and hands with an extremely refined finish. Despite this, he has also used the wood grain as a compositional element that marks his complexion, calling attention to the finer physical characteristics and inherent natural beauty of the material. This sets up a constant, unresolved and visually intriguing tension between the natural wood grain marking the highly polished rendering of the face and the rougher, more expressionistic working of the rest of the figure, emphasizing its hand-carved nature.
Saeri Kiritani takes a contrasting tack with her sculpted self portrait, 100 Pounds of Rice, an appealingly literal nude consisting entirely of rice, or rice noodles in the case of her hair. The resulting sculpture is a conservator’s nightmare, easily as perishable as one of Félix González-Torres weight-based “portraits” in wrapped candies of dead friends. It is also more culturally specific. While the human sweet-tooth seems global, Kiritani is as justified to see herself, however wryly, as literally being made of rice as an Aztec would have seen himself as a man of corn. One need not rely on the wall text to grasp the relationship between the weight of the ingredients that went into creating it and the form of its subject. Unlike a visually ambiguous pile of wrapped candies, Kirtani’s sculpture clearly announces its meaning without recourse to an explanatory text.
The artist’s niece is represented by a similarly unconventional medium, a single strand of thread wound about an array of brads, in Kumi Yamashita’s Constellation-Mana. Initially perceived as a whole, further scrutiny reveals the ethereal presence of the sitter emerging from a multi-layered web of black threads. This web is set against points of light created by the brads, which serve as the titular constellation. The basic technique will be familiar to anyone who indulged in home-made op-art projects in the late 1960s. In Yamashita’s hands however, the results are anything but predictable.
Bo Gehring’s video portrait of Jessica Wickham provides the exhibition’s high point in achieving the unexpected through the utterly familiar, über democratic medium of video. Rather than belabor its potential banality, a trend that has beset the medium since its inception as an artistic format, Gehring makes his high-concept portrait visually compelling, even beautiful, by building on video’s most basic elements. The concept is simplicity itself. Gehring slowly scans his subject from foot to head, capturing her listening to a piece of music she has selected for her portrait, in this case Arvo Pärt’s elegiac Cantus in Memory of Benjamin Britten. The duration of the portrait is timed to the music. Gehring doesn’t use technological intervention, as does Bill Viola, to slow the work’s pace. Rather the pace is determined by the unfolding of the music. Still, the hypnotic effect both Gehring and Viola produce is quite similar.
Improvements in high definition video technology allow for an extremely close up view of Ms. Wickham, a focus far more intimate than the human eye itself could otherwise achieve. In a nod to more traditional—read painted—portrait practice, the video begins and ends as the camera pans along a surface of unprimed canvas on which the subject’s body rests. Slight footprint smudges on the canvas announce a human presence even before we see her form. In this case, the footprints were made by bright orange “Crocs,” which give way to pink socks, and then to slate blue corduroy pants. The pants themselves become abstracted topographies—tiny pieces of lint trapped within the wales and the way the wales drape over the body—a body which responds, albeit at first slightly, to the music.
Wickham is a woodworker, and in keeping with the exhibition’s dominant rejection of idealization, we see a bruised fingernail and a scuffed quilted jacket which offers vivid testimony of the vicissitudes of her profession. It is at this point that the piece takes on unmistakable life, as the jacket’s zipper expands and retracts from the viewer’s eye with her every breath, responding it seems unconsciously to the music. As the camera reaches Wickham’s face, her eyes make a split second of contact with its lens, before shifting back to a distant focus that also seems to emanate from Pärt’s score. The way in which even the simplest movements animate the forehead also come into sharp focus under Gehring’s lens, the scan continuing past her hairline before slowly ending with a few ephemeral wisps of hair against the canvas.
In addition to the prize money Gehring received as the Boochever Competition winner, he was awarded a commission to create a portrait of a notable living American for the National Portrait Gallery’s permanent collection. I for one anxiously await this new work, curious to learn who will be selected, hear what music the subject selects, and to see how the subject dresses for posterity. Judging by Gehring’s portrait Jessica Wickham, the result will be a far more revealing meditation on an individual than any extended literary profile could possibly hope to capture. That, of course, is the highest aim of portraiture and it is exhilarating to see it being achieved in a way that both employs contemporary technology as well as transcends it.