What happened to your face?

Pawel Sliwinski
Pawel Sliwinski

I love portraiture – painting portraits and looking at portraits. I never tire of the human face and the complex nuances that our cognitive faculties allow us to interpret. Though Picasso and Braque broke with the conventional portrait decades ago, there is a growing number of contemporary artists that are deliberately distorting, manipulating and warping and even eliminating the facial construct.

Sascha Braunig, Self-portrait
Sascha Braunig, Self-portrait
Marco Grassi
Marco Grassi

What I find interesting is that this direction is the polar opposite of what the media is feeding us. The artistic trend expresses a creative push-back against idealism and a conscious rejection of flawless complexions, perfect feature ratios, homogeneity. Artists are mutating the face to almost alien proportions and merging human and animal characteristics. 


I believe that these works also convey a sense of chaos and unrest in response to a world that appears to be falling apart and spinning out of control. Other than the intellectual drive to break the boundaries of painting, perhaps similar tensions and uncertainty in Europe prior to WWI played a role in influencing artists like Picasso to experiment with faceting and breaking up the face, where all human emotion is communicated.

And of course, digital tools have added a whole new spin to re-constructing and re-inventing the face, pixel by pixel. Perfect example is Dutch artist Tim Coster’s self-portrait (below) of which he says:”This self-portrait is about digitizing my own appearance. The next step is to upload my ghost in it so I’ll be able to live on digitally after I die”.

While musing about the direction and future of portraiture I did a small painting (3.5″ x 3.5″) of five sisters based on a photograph from the ’60’s. I used watercolor and acrylics over a print transfer of my photocopied sketch applied to Aquaboard with acrylic gel medium. Any thoughts?

'Five sisters', Lilianne Milgrom
‘Five sisters’, Lilianne Milgrom  $50

NB: Four months after writing this post, ARTSPACE MAGAZINE wrote an article about the same trend (I beat them to it!). They have put a name on this phenomenon – Figural Non-Objectivity!

Heads up!


Art trends come and go, but when they take hold, they can dominate the art market to such an extent that many artists  lack the courage to buck the trend. Some however,  listen to their own muse regardless of the dictates of the art world.

America in the 50’s and 60’s was caught up in the whirlwind of abstraction and abstract expressionism. The art of portraiture was thrown out with the bathwater of realism. Nonetheless, as the current show Face Value at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington DC reveals, the desire to portray and represent  our common humanity was too powerful to be suppressed.


Many of the iconic artists of this era demonstrate innovative interpretations of the genre and are represented among the impressive group of works in this exhibition: Andy Warhol, Jim Dine, Elaine de Kooning, Alice Neel, Chuck Close, Philip Pearlstein are some of the recognizable names.

Two sculptural works caught my eye – Marisol Escobar’s portrait of Hugh Hefner (used for Time Magazine’s March 1967 cover) and Robert Arneson’s Classical Exposure. Marisol’s blend of 2-D and 3-D techniques, and her strong sense of composition made an arresting impression.


Robert Arneson is one of my heroes – one of the first ceramic artists to work in large-scale, attacking conceptual notions with a big dollop of humor. In his self-portrait entitled Classical Exposure (below) he deconstructs his body parts using classical references and poking militant feminist views of objectification in the eye. His bust rests on a pedestal whose center is pierced by his protruding penis and whose base reveals his grubby looking toes.



Joan Semmel’s Me Without Mirrors pushes back against the traditional male gaze by portraying the female body from a perspective that only a woman is privy to.

joan semmel


One work that really reveals the New York art scene of the sixties is Red Groom’s 3-D cartoon-y reconstruction of an artist’s loft.  Cool guys and gals are listening to records, smoking, reading, laughing, eating and drinking. You can almost smell the pot and hear the jazz.

red grooms 2

Through January 2015 at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington DC.

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.

Portrait Gallery (4)

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.

Les Parisiens IV