Thursday, March 18, 2010

Outwin Boochever Portrait Competition

by Ralf
The national portrait gallery has just hosted their second of an ongoing series of juried exhibitions called the Outwin Boochever Portrait Competition. Comprised of a selection of forty-nine individual artists’ works, the show was as diverse as it was ambitious in content. Not to be taken lightly, the grand prize winner in this open call for entries was awarded a respectable 25,000 dollars for their efforts and a commission to ‘create a portrait of a notable living American for the Portrait Gallery’s permanent collection.’ There were no restrictions on media which included painting, sculpture, drawing, video, and photography. This open call to American artists permitted and to a certain extent even encouraged applicants to ‘interpret the concept of portraiture broadly,’ which the PR for the exhibition felt produced a body of work that ‘celebrated excellence and innovation, with a strong focus on the variety of portrait media used by artists today.’ The latter half of this declaration is most certainly undeniable. The show included works ranging in media from oil and canvas, to full figured (obese) nudes cast from Foam rubber, to a short video list of people in order of their appearance in the artist’s life. There was no more a criteria set for media as there was one placed on the genre of portraiture itself. All that was needed to meet the guidelines was that ‘each portrait had to be the result of the artist's direct encounter with that person.’ Still there were consistencies that began to show up throughout the works as a whole that seemed counter intuitive to the exhibitions claim of encouraged broad interpretation of the ‘concept of portraiture. A sort of hyperrealism pervaded the show that could be picked up on as soon as one entered the space. The viewer, with what I can only infer, was supposed to be dazzled with a patience and proficiency of the brush that in only a few cases extended further to help give the form function. The mediocrity of with which the images had been painted was on par with the function of the portraits. Not only was the paint handling poor in some cases, it amounted to the climax of the picture. Though not always clear, some of the images were most certainly derived from photograph without any explanation as to why this was an important or relevant step or why it had required the translation into paint. Most of the painting whether good or bad strayed little from the path of tradition.
Another unifying theme that could be identified was that all work in one way or another was figurative, either conceptually or formally. Most images were straightforward representational paintings or photographs of an individual. The only conceptual piece was the above mentioned video documenting the artist’s life as movie and the supporting cast involved. Identity also played a role in unifying the show. Most of the figures in the works had a sense of personal individuality. An understanding for the subjects own existence outside of the work of art and an empathy for the individuals personal experience of the world could be felt in most works. Though some of the paintings connected with their subjects in no way at all, leaving the viewer unable to as well.
Diverse as the show may have been in its inclusion of all types of media and material there were no great examples of reinvention of the genre. Overall it was juried fairly conservatively and gave a most expected overview of contemporary portraiture. Works like ‘portrait 23’ by Matthew Mitchell depicted recognizable celebrity personas that viewers came to with previous relationships. This iconic face of the horribly disfigured Iraqi war veteran sergeant Richard Yarosh, as sensitive and serious as his story may have been, was put to use ending with a cliché painting that capitalized on his personal trials and suffering in a predatorily nature taking advantage of an easy hot button market. The painting also happened to place second in the people’s choice awards. I mean come on. Chuck Close was painted in miniature by Jim Torok that was disgustingly predictable, but painted well mind you. Both paintings offered little besides this celebrity status of subject matter. The highlight of the show for me was ‘writer’ by Cliffton Peacock. Your browser may not support display of this image. It came the farthest in trying to reinvestigate our understanding of what portraiture offers as a genre. Beautiful in its simplicity of composition down to the twill weave linen chosen for the ground every decision added up to a perfectly stated portrait of an unidentifiable figure. Simple in palette, design, and modulation it rang out with one pure and clear voice. So easy was it to feel empathy towards the figure that the painting transcended its materials into the sublime. Yet how can this be. The figure is blank. She is expressionless; an empty vessel. This is not a portrait in the traditional sense. There is no ego, no individual motive or drive, only a self-contained stoicism of epic scale. It becomes not a portrait of a particular individual, but a portrait of a state of mind. It is a portrait of the human condition itself. Reminiscent of a Morandi or an early Picasso, less becomes more. The limited information that has been articulated through paint carries more weight because of how simplified the reality has been constructed. All that is essential is kept, all that is superfluous discarded. It was one of only a few breaths of fresh air amongst the overwhelming stench of stagnation.
Sam Messer made his second appearance in the Outwin Boochever Portrait Competition leaving him two for two in the ongoing series of exhibitions. He along with John Younger were the only two finalist that made the selection for both shows. It was satisfying to see Messer’s inclusion because of his work and his career. He is an academic, Associate Dean and professor at the Yale School of Art. He looks at portraiture as a collaborative process between the artist and the subject. This is a reasonable and difficult to refute understanding of the genre. If this were not true then the painting may as well have been of a still life, leaving the sitter irrelevant and interchangeable. His goals also include a need ‘to express something about the person that is larger than their appearance and closer to the essence of some part of their character.’ He comes fair closer to expressing something of the sitters uniqueness than any of the other paintings because he was not concerned with the likeness of the person in front of him. He was after their essence. While this is no more an original approach to portraiture than the photorealists I can’t imagine he was the only artist out of 3,300 artists working adeptly in this manner.
Overall the show was predictable, conservative, and unoriginal. The two paintings cited along with a handful of other works made the show worthwhile to view; and they are most certainly trying to do a wonderful thing down at the national portrait gallery. But the judges might want to try opening their understanding of the genre and diversify their selections if that’s what they’re going to say they’re doing.

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