AMERICAN PORTRAITURE TODAY

Every three years, the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery hosts the Outwin Boochever contemporary portrait competition. It’s one of my favorite art events because it expands and re-defines what we think of as portraiture. This year’s judges selected 46 out of 2600 entries! Race, gender bias and immigration were the underlying themes tackled by the selected artists. Here are a few of the standouts:

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Deborah Roberts ’80 Days’

Artist Deborah Roberts felt ‘called’ to paint a portrait of 14-year-old George Stinney Jr. who was executed in 1944 in an electric chair for a murder he did not commit. The work symbolizes the injustices against African American youths today (I would highly recommend a visit to another outstanding Smithsonian museum in DC – the National Museum of African American History and Culture). Aside from its message, I loved the subtle confluence of painting and collage in the face, shown in detail:

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Some of you may recognize the face of iconic novelist and activist, James Baldwin (1924-1987), in this work below by artist Nekisha Durrett.

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But take a closer look at how she created this portrait:

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Individual shapes made of polymer clay

A video work by performance artist, Anna Garner, presented a totally different interpretation of self-portrait. Garner filmed herself engaged in a potentially harmful situation of her own making. To watch the video, click on the image below. 

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The portrait of ‘April and June’ by David Antonio Cruz features Cruz’s focal subject – black and brown members of the queer community. I particularly liked the artist’s fearless treatment of color and the clash of patterns (see detail below).

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Detail from ‘April and June’

The exhibition also included several outstanding photographs.

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Portrait of DeRay Mckesson by Quinn Russell Brown. Mckesson has dedicated his life to the Black Lives Matter movement. The photographer captured his seriousness of purpose.

AND THE WINNER IS….

The judges of the Outwin Boochever competition awarded first place to Hugo Crosthwaite for his stop-gap animated ‘Portrait of Berenice Sarmiento Chavez’ dealing with one woman’s American Dream. Click on the image below to watch the video. 

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Before concluding this brief overview of the portrait competition, I want to introduce another two works that greatly impressed me. I was blown away by the sensitive treatment and paint quality of ‘Hidden Wounds’ (below) by Luis Alvarez Roure, who painted his childhood friend after the latter returned from war. The half-shadowed face hides the hidden scars below the surface.

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Another powerful service member portrait (below), this time representing women in the armed forces, was painted by Julianne Wallace Sterling who found her subjects by advertising on Craigslist!

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Specialist Murphy by Julianne Wallace Sterling

(I’d like to take this opportunity to acknowledge the service of another young woman, close family friend, 2nd Lt. Rosenberg, United States Marine Corps, pictured below with General James Mattis)

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Art and Literature – inspiration goes both ways

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On a recent visit to the Baltimore Museum of Art (BMA), I felt connected to three artists in particular as a result of having recently read books inspired by these artists and their work. The first artist was Henri Matisse (1869-1954), the famous French painter, unparalleled for his vivid color and line work.

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I just finished reading Chasing Matisse: A Year in France Living my Dream by James Morgan. Morgan takes the reader along as he follows in Matisse’s footsteps. There are no big discoveries or surprises, but Morgan makes some wonderful observations. The Baltimore Museum of Art inherited an outstanding collection of works by Henri Matisse, thanks to the Cone sisters of Baltimore (Claribel and Etta, below). These dour-faced sisters amassed over 3,000 works in their lifetimes, including hundreds of paintings and sketches by Matisse.

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Van Gogh’s expressive painting of hobnailed boots (below) immediately caught my eye. It brought to mind Vincent van Gogh’s lifelong struggle with poverty, articulated in his prolific correspondence with his brother, Theo (The Letters of Vincent van Gogh). 

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I doubt there ever lived an artist more dedicated and obsessed than Vincent van Gogh. His letters describe a sensitive, observant, frustrated, and anguished man. His obsession with his art ultimately contributed to his mental breakdown and tragic demise. 

Also on view was a bronze cast of Degas’ iconic, tutu-clad ballerina, Little Dancer (below).

 

 

This sculpture – one of the best-known works in modern art and first exhibited in 1881 – is the subject of a recently published, introspective book entitled Little Dancer Aged Fourteen by Camille Laurens. Ms. Laurens’ narrative is a hybrid memoir/art historical dive into the sculpture’s controversial history. The author’s research into the model’s identity provides an in-depth view of 19th century life for these young dancers, preyed upon by wealthy Opera goers and exploited by artists such as Degas.

I can personally attest to the inspiration that a work of art can spark in a writer. I have recently completed my manuscript ‘L’Origine‘ (seven years in the making) based on Gustave Courbet’s erotic 19th century painting L’Origine du monde. (In case you missed it, read about it in my article published by the Huffington Post.)

Before signing off, here are two works at the BMA from two of my favorite women artists.

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Alice Neel (1900-1984) Nancy and the Twins
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Anne Truitt (1921-2004) ‘First’

Read the inspiration for the above work in Truitt’s own words:

What did I know, I asked myself. What did I love? What was it that meant the very most to me inside my very own self? The fields and trees and fences and boards and lattices of my childhood…rushed across my inner eyes as if borne by a great, strong wind…’

 

Miami Nice

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Detail of Juan Gatti’s hyper-realist work at the Faena on Miami Beach. So real you could almost pet it – which I did!

Juan Gatti’s over-sized paintings in the luxurious Faena resort’s lobby are so…Miami. Big, brash, over-the-top, oozing with fabulous detail and dripping with gold. They are pretty fabulous and apparently each mural panel cost one million dollars! As you stroll through the lobby (referred to as ‘The Cathedral’) towards Faena’s private beach, the path splits when you get to ‘The Mammoth’, Damien Hirst’s gold-dipped and encased mammoth skeleton. It’s quite a sight.

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Every detail at the Faena has been tastefully curated to create a seamless blend of art, architecture and design. Even the hotel doors are glitzy.

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And then there’s the Jeff Koons work upstairs at the entrance to the resort’s signature restaurant. But just up the road on Collins Avenue, the Bass Museum of Contemporary Art offers a more serene and contemplative style of art in the form of Sheila Hicks’ fiber art. 

Born in Nebraska in 1934, Hicks has had an expansive career. Her resume reads like an artist’s wet dream – Yale University, Fulbright Scholarship, Venice Biennale, Whitney Biennial, solo shows in Tokyo, Korea, Israel and on and on. Impressive to the point of intimidating. Oh, and she divides her time between Paris and New York just for good measure. But you can’t begrudge Hicks her success because she deserves all the accolades and more. The current exhibition is loosely centered around the theme of landscape. Her creativity with her medium knows no bounds.

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Installation created with mesh bags filled with rainbow-colored skeins of silk thread. Its’ scale is mesmerizing. You just want to dive in and get swallowed up in it. 

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Detail of hair-like waterfall of thread (above)

You don’t have to wait for Miami Basel to see some great art in Miami. Hicks’ exhibition, Campo Abierto (Open Field), is on through the end of September, 2019. It’s a winner.

This too shall pass…

Like many, many people living in the US right now, I am experiencing great anxiety about the state of this nation. It’s hard to believe that we will ever extricate ourselves from this free-for-all bog of lying, fear and hatred. A recent visit to the MOMA exhibition at the National Gallery of Victoria comforted me by reminding me of my mother’s wise words: ‘This too shall pass‘ – words that got me through some tough times. Hundreds of iconic artworks created over the past 130 years were on display, portraying the challenges that each new decade brought with it.

Walking through the highlights of New York’s Museum of Modern Art collection was like a visual walking tour of history.  The impressionist, cubist, surreal, abstract expressionist, fauvist, modernist and contemporary works revealed the artists’ responses to wars, culture clashes, political upheavals and inner turmoil.

I won’t even begin to attempt to walk you through such a content-rich and complex exhibition – I’ll leave that to the NGV’s curated site. But I will share a few teasers.

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Guess who the Belgian artist is? He went by one name beginning with ‘M’
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Prime example of the Dada art movement. Artist: M_ _ _ _ _D_ _ _ _ _ _
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When John Baldessari created this text painting everyone thought he was crazy. Now it hangs in the Museum of Modern Art in New York!

I also enjoyed the ephemeral contemporary installation by Roman Ondak, Measuring the universe. This dynamic installation was created by marking the height of individual museum visitors, creating a panorama of human height variables.

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View of installation gallery for Measuring the Universe

On site volunteers stand you up against the wall (just like your mom or dad did then they marked the kitchen doorway to check your growth) and mark your height along with your name and date. The names scribbled by the volunteers one on top of another become a black mass of jumbled individual names ultimately unreadable but representing all of humanity.

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Close up – can you make out where my name is?

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Ondak’s goal in this work is to unite people in a shared action. After all, we inhabit the same universe – that comes with privileges and obligations to treat one another as equals.

(Oh, by the way the Belgian artist’s name was Magritte and the famous Dada artist’s name was Marcel Duchamp).

NEWS UPDATE: I will be teaching a three-day collage workshop at the Western Wyoming Community College in Rock Springs to accompany my exhibition there in November. Stay tuned!

In my own backyard

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Johannes Vermeer ….Woman Holding a Balance

I love discovering new art experiences in far-flung places. Sometimes, though, I need to remind myself of the wonderful museums right here in Washington DC. I was fortunate to catch two major exhibitions at the National Gallery that are polar opposites in every way.  I began with the blockbuster show Vermeer and the Masters of genre painting. (A twitter-style primer: Johannes Vermeer is the most celebrated painter of 17th century Dutch Golden Age painting. ‘Genre’ painting captures scenes of everyday, domestic life).

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Nicolaes Maes Young Woman Making lace

These paintings are miniaturized, highly detailed glimpses into life in Holland in the late 1600’s.  Apart from appreciating the beauty and skill, two things stood out for me: First, the care taken by the artists to provide narrative clues. For example, look at this brothel scene by Frans Van Mieris.

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Frans Van Mieris Brothel Scene

Did you notice the dogs going at it in the lower right? The artist threw that in there just in case the viewer was in doubt as to where this scene was taking place…!

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Detail

Likewise, in Samuel van Hoogstraten’s View of an Interior (below) we see what appears to be an empty room. But somebody is definitely in there even though we can’t see them – note the shoes on the mat, the keys still hanging on the door…

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Samuel van Hoogstraten View of an Interior

Or in Gabriel Metsu’s Woman Reading a Letter, the maid is pulling back a curtain to reveal a painting of a stormy sea, connoting that the letter could be bringing bad tidings.

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Gabriel Metsu Woman Reading a Letter

This painting brings me to my second take-away from the collection of paintings in this exhibition: There was an awful lot of letter-writing taking place, which made me realize that texting obsessively is just a natural extension of our intrinsic need to communicate.

I was just in awe of the fabulously elaborate clothing and the sumptuousness of textures that seem to leave our contemporary, minimalist aesthetics lacking in some way…

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Keep this in mind for my next blog post that will feature minimalist sculptor, Anne Truitt’s solo show, also on exhibit at the National Gallery in Washington DC.

(The Vermeer exhibition closed last weekend. More on the National Gallery website)

Art lights up my life: Bernardi Roig and others

Dan Flavin installation 1996, Menil Collection, Houston

Contemporary art chafes against constraint of any shape or form. This manifests itself in many ways, from seeking out unexpected and alternative venues for exhibiting art, to experimenting with new media and materials that until recently were not part of the artistic lexicon. Light is one of those relatively new mediums that has been harnessed and embraced as a legitimate art form, successfully championed (see above) by the minimalist artist Dan Flavin (1933-1996), James Turell and Icelandic artist Olafur Eliasson to mention a few. 

On a recent visit to The Philips Collection in D.C. I was introduced to the dazzling works of Bernardi Roig, an artist from Palma de Mallorca whose installations combine the power of light with figurative sculpture. 

ROIG 8Several of Roig’s works were spread throughout the museum – inside and out. The image of a life sized figure dragging a long train of light like penance was startling. There was something absurd and meaningless about this activity yet one felt that the figure was committed to this journey and accepted his fate. I responded deeply to the work despite the ‘artspeak’ text provided by the museum: “Roig’s work addresses existential dualities of blinding and illumination, absence and presence, memory and temporality as well as entrapment and liberation.” Sometimes it’s best to just look at the art and let it speak for itself.

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Another artist who works in a most extraordinary new medium is German-born artist Wolfgang Laib. His medium of choice is beeswax. The Philips Collection commissioned him to create a permanent installation within the museum. The result is a small chamber, not much larger than a closet, that is totally covered in burnished beeswax. 

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For this particular work, the artist was inspired by Rothko and I see the connection in the subtle play of color tones created by the wax. Entering the space one is assaulted by a heady aroma of honey warmed by a single light bulb. I don’t know if I was imagining it, but I thought I could even hear the murmur of the hive….

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(f you’re fascinated by the way artists can use beeswax, check out another up-and-coming artist who works in the same medium – Jessica Sanders.)

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