Thursday, February 9, 2017

Contemporary portraits from the Smithsonian


The Outwin 2016 American Portrait competition winners
Published in the Weekly Volcano, Feb. 9, 2017
“Alison Bechdel,” charcoal, mixed media and 3-D collage on paper, by Riva Lehrer, collection of the Sandy Hindin Stone, © Riva Hehrer, courtesy Tacoma Art Museum
“Alison Bechdel,” charcoal, mixed media and 3-D collage on paper, by Riva Lehrer, collection of the Sandy Hindin Stone, © Riva Hehrer, courtesy Tacoma Art Museum
The development of photography in the early 19th century almost killed portrait painting as a fine art and forced artists to find new ways of making art. Prior to the advent of photography, the purpose of portraiture was to memorialize or honor the subject of the portrait. The subject (the person pictured) was more important that the object (the painting — composition, color, technique, elicited emotional response and so forth). To my way of thinking, that change made artists become better artists, and it made traditional portrait painting become an almost obsolete art form.
The 43 portraits in the traveling exhibition, The Outwin 2016: American Portraiture Today from the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery offer answers to the question of how portraiture can still be a significant contemporary art form. For starters, the exhibition includes photographs as well as paintings, sculpture and video. Curator Dorothy Moss said modern iterations of this competitive portrait exhibition have often included abstract and conceptual art, but this year’s show is much more traditional.
At first glance, my impression was that the show was dominated by portraits from the tradition that began with Manet and went through Pop Art and photo-realist portraiture as exemplified by works by Chuck Close, Alex Katz and Andy Warhol — isolated figures facing forward with flat backgrounds, no context. One of the two galleries given over to the show is almost exclusively this type of portraiture, including the first, second and third place winners (in order: Amy Sherald’s acrylic painting “Miss Everything (unsuppressed Deliverance)”, Cynthia Henebry’s digital photograph “Mavis in the Back Seat)” and Joel Daniel Phillips’ charcoal and graphite drawing “Eugene #4).”
"Miss Everything,(Unsuppressed Deliverance)" oil on canvas by Any Sherald, collection of Frances and Buton Reifler © Amy Sherald, courtesy Tacoma Art Museum
Works in the second gallery somewhat belied that impression because that gallery contains more variety in style and media and more works depicting subjects in environments, including the People’s Choice winner, Adrian “Viajero” Roman’s charcoal-on-wood portrait of Constancia Colónde Clemente. This may be the only time I have ever agreed with a people’s choice selection. This portrait is of an elderly Cuban woman. It is drawn on a box measuring 48-by-48-by 49 inches and hung high from the ceiling, drawn on all four sides with no bottom. Viewers can walk under it, look up, and see mementoes from the woman’s life attached to the inside of the box. It is skillfully executed and may be the most inventive and honest portrait in the show.
Also outstanding is Sherald’s first-place winner. It is a portrait of a young Black woman wearing a black and white dress, solid black on one side with white piping and white polka dots on the other side. She daintily holds an oversized coffee cup and wears a jaunty red hat. Her face and arms are painted with smooth shading, while her dress and the coffee cup are flat in a style reminiscent of Alec Katz portraits. I also see reminders or influences from Kehinde Wiley and Roy Litchenstein. The composition is subtle and exquisite.
Another portrait that absolutely blew me away is Riva Lehrer’s portrait of the cartoonist Alison Bechdel (famous for the comic strip “Dykes to Watch Out For” and one of the few portraits of famous people in the show, another being Brenda Ziamany’s portrait of David Hockney). Lehrer’s portrait in charcoal, mixed-media and collage creates an alluring sense of mystery due to strong light and dark contrast, a cast shadow and blue lines that play in a provocative way with illusory space.
Most the portraits in this show are skillfully done and realistic in a modernist tradition. There is a lot of identity art with depictions of the poor and marginalized, ethnic and racial minorities, a gay couple and a transgender teenage girl wearing a dress for the very first time.

Tacoma Art Museum, Tuesday-Sunday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., through May 14, $15, third Thursday free 10 a.m.-8 p.m., 1701 Pacific Ave. Tacoma,

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