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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What is it about portraits…?

The Birth of Inez Imake  Painting by Ginny Stanford

In spite of the fact that I can’t pronounce it, I eagerly look forward to the biennial Outwin Boochever Portrait Competition with bated breath. The National Portrait Gallery hosts this phenomenal show every two years.  Many moons ago, portraiture was once confined by strict rules and rigid parameters. No more. This year’s 48 finalists, chosen from thousands of entries, covered the gamut of traditional oil paintings, photographs, video (first prize winner Bo Gehring), animation, rice sculpture, thread portraits and one portrait had no face at all, just an oval canvas revealing the few inches of skin between the artist’s breasts.

Body 10/17/11 by Gwen Hardie
Body 10/17/11 by Gwen Hardie

I just love portraits, and that is probably why I haven’t yet burned out on preparing for my upcoming solo portraiture show at Crossroads Gallery this July (details forthcoming but mark your calanders July 13, 2013!) The Outwin Boocher competiton catalogue begins with the sentence: ‘A portrait has the power to stop us in our tracks.’ I couldn’t agree more. I get swallowed into a good portrait, sensing the sitter, feeling the connection between artist and sitter and enjoying the unexpected introduction to a stranger who, by becoming the subject of a portrait no longer feels like a stranger.

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I have to borrow from artist Bly Pope’s words because I could not have come up with a more beautiful way of expressing the power of a portrait: ‘ The human face is a lyrical and mysterious landscape.’ I strongly suggest that you take yourselves to the National Portrait Gallery in Washington DC – the show is on till 2014, so no excuses!

I’m also very excited about my new collaboration with the Susan Calloway Fine Art Gallery in Georgetown who will be exhibiting some of my works, including this small Parisian cafe scene, which, since we’re on the subject of portratis, could be viewed as a double portrait.

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