Thursday, February 15, 2007
Portrait Gallery 2006 Competition Review
I was disappointed in the Outwin Boochever 2006 Portrait competition at the National Portrait Gallery. I saw a lot of skillful painting, to be sure, but to what end? I went in hoping to gain some insight into the state contemporary portraiture, but found that most of the pieces relied too heavily on either art history or photography for my taste.
Offenders in the first category include Ginny Stanford, and Richard Weaver. Stanford’s gilded vertical triptych of Nicholas looks like some bizarre cross between an icon and a sterile CEO portrait, and unfortunately conveys no trace of the strong AIDS survivor described in her Artist Statement. I was particularly keen to see Weaver’s painting of Maggie Sullivan since he is the mentor of a dear friend. Unfortunately, the stylistic nostalgia is so overpowering that the sitter’s contemporary clothing seems out of place; and not in a good way.
There is also a sub-category of historical coattail riders; a gimmick so obvious that it overshadows all legitimate skill. Among these are William Lawrence’s Big Self-Portrait, whose Warholian scale, color, and funny hair are permissible only because the artist is clearly no more than 15 years old and doesn’t know any better, and Mark Dennis’ Portrait in the Composition of a Jackson Pollock Painting, Echo no. 10, 1951. Need I say more? There are also those who painted actual living historical figures; such as Paul Oxborough’s uninteresting Chuck Close, and Kathleen Gilje’s Robert Rosenblum as the Marquis de Pastoret; which is witty for the correlation it draws, but rendered in an unconvincing cut-and-paste manner.
There are two portraits of historical figures worth mentioning for their aptitude. The first is Carle Shi’s large, double portrait of Anthony Haden-Guest, which is beautifully executed, striped down, contemporary and thoughtful in an unselfconscious way, and Brenda Zlamany’s Portrait #83 in which a discerning Alex Katz stares critically out at the viewer for a change.
Among those who rely too heavily on photography are Bryan Drury’s Electro Bloodlines and Sarah Sohn’s Between Dialogues. It is clear to me, from the flat colors and all-too-familiar light source that both artists went to great pains to copy a photograph, and my question is ‘why bother?’
Two artists who address photography and film in a more complex way are Alan Caomin Xie and Burton Philip Silverman. Xie’s Still Image 24-Andrea resembles a de-laced TV still, and directly challenges the traditional relationship between portrait artist and sitter. Silverman turns assumptions about use of photographic sources upside down in Survivor by including the camera in his very painterly self-portrait. This begs us to question whether the camera is being used as a tool or a prop, and then to question the larger significance of ‘tool’ and ‘prop’. Earlier I asked ‘why bother’, and Silverman’s painting seems to counter ‘why bother questioning my camera when I can get this kind of result?’
There are a few truly original pieces in the competition. Among these are Zak Smith’s Girls in the Naked Girl Business: Aprella, which flirts dangerously with graphic design but ultimately escapes the stigma by the shear density and specificity of the image, and Steve DeFrank’s light-bright piece Mom and Dad- whose combination of material nostalgia and parental nudity is cheeky, hysterical, and a little disturbing. My favorite piece is Winter to Spring by Sara Pedigo. The piece is comprised of 47 match-box sized images painted chronologically on a single slat of wood; a format clearly referencing a film strip. However, instead of indulging in a straightforward narrative or some kind of motion sequence, Pedigo explores broader cinematic themes such as the development of character, place, and time. The result is genuine, light-hearted, and exquisite in its simplicity.
My hope for next year’s competition would be that more artists would attack the difficult issues facing portrait painting in the 21st century, and that less would rely on crutches and gimmicks.