Although overshadowed by the buzz and controversy surrounding the show right upstairs from it, "Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture," “Americans Now,” is an exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery that could have had just as much star potential. Running through July 10th, this compilation of works from the museum’s permanent collection features Americans who have shaped our culture, society, and world views within the past decade. Acknowledging the ease at which portraiture is dismissed as being old-fashioned in today’s heterogeneous art world, the exhibition’s intention is to showcase and explore how humility, notoriety, and relevancy operate within interpretations of identity in our fractured and complex society. Curatorial statements contend the show’s objective as being to “reflect the variety of media the Portrait Gallery is now collecting,” and to “address the museum’s recently established policy of accepting living subjects into the collection.”
In meandering through this array of human faces, forms, and personas, it was a constant frustration to grapple for analogous relations within this spatial organization of the show, which spans the the front hallway and several side-rooms of a wing on the first floor. When passing through, one cannot help but make loose, associative groupings of the images. In some instances, ‘neighborhoods’ of portraits compliment one another and seem to encompass various facets of a certain common denominator. For instance, one wall displays reverent photographs that together form a Western-themed triptych, setting George Strait, Willie Nelson, and Larry McMurtry as the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. Other, more contrived juxtapositions add another layer of mystique to the subjects, as in the case of the grouping of Dan Winter’s “Joyce Carol Oates,” William Abranowicz’s “Martha Stewart,” and Anthony Barboza’s “Mathe Hong Kingston.” In this particular group, each of these digital prints convey the vast differences in the niches of these women, yet despite these differences, they all establish a certain relationship to the audience - an entrapping one due to the subjects’ feminine, but unsettling glances. However cleverly-constructed some relations of portraits in the show are, however, rows such as the one including stills of Tony Kushner, Bill Viola, Andre Agassi, and John Mackley, represent the presence of misfit-groupings which refuse to lend themselves any easy associations in subject or approach.
Upon walking into the first room on the right, you are immediately confronted by a modestly-sized, yet blatantly Warholesque screen print of first lady Michelle Obama, “Michelle O.” Mickalone Thomas’ vampy, yet, glamorous portrayal of her political highness prepares the viewer for the commanding Shepard Fairey “Hope” portrait of President Barack Obama that lies in the room ahead. While an obvious crowd-pleaser and symbol of our times, this charged image seems out of place with the group of portraits surrounding it. Stuck near these polarized government figures are two humble, photo-realistic portraits of the Nobel Prize-winning scientists, David Baltimore and Harold Varmus, both by Jon R. Friedman. While wonderfully rendered and offering inviting and congenial expressions, these two figures are too innocuous where they hang, leaving them no less anonymous than before. Across the floor, a portrait of Ben Bernanke made entirely out of cut and collaged currency is quirky, but not deep. Interesting symbolic implications of money as the material of a person arise, but in the portrayal of the Federal Reserve Chairman, the execution is trite rather than innovative. Unfortunately, this is one of few examples of non-traditional media amidst the collection.
Entering the next room over, there hangs another juggernaut of a painting, this one featuring L.L. Cool J (a.k.a. Ladies Love Cool James) overtop of an optically-jarring red and green ornamental background and at a four-times-larger-than-life scale. Informed by the composition and accentuations of John Singer Sargent’s portrait of John D. Rockefeller, the artist, Kehinde Wiley, manifests shifting notions of status and culture, and flairs of both the urban and urbane in this painting. The presence of L.L. Cool J on his leather chair with his personal crest on the top-right corner of the canvas situates the hip-hop mogul-turned-entrepreneur as the confident over-seer of the room. This over-the-top and flamboyant style of portraiture was one of the most effective pieces in the exhibition, not because of technical skill or shock-value, but because Wiley’s art and L.L. Cool J’s career are very much in the same vein. Their own personal histories, cultural identities, and even publicized styles lend a natural understanding not apparent in many of the other artist-subject relationships. Something about this work seems much more authentic and mutually autobiographical, which, makes sense considering the inescapability of own personal projections in portraiture reading.
Jason Salavon’s “Late Night Triad” is a strong piece that allowed the viewer a glimpse of the subjects in action. Studying an animated subject shows much more than a sessile portrait because it grants access to gestures, quirks, and even a prolonged and shifting gaze. When Salavon superimposed clips of 64 days worth of late-night television’s three biggest men, Conan O’Brien, Jay Leno, and David Letterman, he effectively constructs three different studies, each with their own particular mannerisms. The distinct and repeated patterns that emerge in each figure coupled with the consequential static and fuzziness of the visual layering both skews and designates each comedian’s identity. Taking snippets of each of the men performing in their ‘public natural environment’ highlights something inherently human and artificial. Another divergence from the instantaneous image, Esquire magazine’s “Portrait of the Twenty-First Century,” allows the subjects the devices of their own subjectivity through digital media in an attempt to get the very essence of the subject. All of the footage in this video-loop installation takes place within a ten-by-ten-foot cube monitored by surround-vision cameras, though imagery itself is again intentionally blurry, jumping, and hard to decipher at times, so as not to lend itself for an ‘easy’ read. The concept of confining the subjects in a neutral circumstance and allowing them freedom to do what they please, regardless of how these actions relate to their public image, is an innovative and fresh approach to portraiture.
Overall, this exhibition did provide a survey of contemporary and relevant portraiture, but I was left longing for something a little more complex. I suppose I was hoping for something more radical; examples that made more of a statement. Having the opportunity to showcase a variety of people who have made ground-breaking contributions and who assumingly possess their own special, patented-brands of genius and eccentricity should have naturally lent itself to a little more profundity than was delivered. Viewers seem too easily amused by the digital prints of Tony Hawk skateboarding around his bare-footed, child-holding wife in a kitchen scene, and Tom Hanks with his serene, yet contemptuous gaze in Dan Winter’s rendition of “America’s favorite average guy.” In this collection, it appears, for the most part, that the familiarity of the subject itself that engages the viewers, rather than the concepts and undertones of the portraiture itself. Chuck Close, an artist known for his ardent contribution to the portrait genre has room installation, “A Couple of Ways of Doing Something,” that is largely ignored by the general spectators. Even though it features anomalies such as daguerreotypes and a reflective self-portrait that challenges conventional linear perspective, the presented dialogue on the idea of portraiture itself is apparently not as appealing as a that of a familiar face.
Walking through the exhibition, I did not, as the Prologue invited me to, wonder which individuals would still be remembered generations from now, and which individuals would be all but forgotten. The scale of the portraits established these convictions implicitly. A few large and recognizable portraits dwarf and eclipse other figures, with the size of celebrity or recognition achieved seemingly dictating the size of the portrait. The showing a variety of of people with the boldness of their portraits directly relational to the subjects’ notoriety, is not a convincingly intentional insinuation.
I guess the fact that the National Portrait Gallery recently began accepting images of living people was thought a brazen enough move for the time-being. Even with the broad genre of identities displayed, there could have been better thematic reconciliation in a contemporary show, however. There was a notable absence of representation of individuals under the age of 30, although there is certainly a range of young candidates that could really embody spirit of the American dream today. If we are realistically expected to hypothesize as to which of these characters are to stick within our culture, then someone young and seemingly unstoppable might provide a healthy dose of debate and honesty. I’m thinking Mark Zuckerberg or even Paris Hilton as worthy additions. While they may not have found the cure for cancer, being a self-made billionaire at 26, or being renowned as the best in the field at being famous for being famous are distinct and powerful qualities. While I suspect that the selection committee for “Americans Now” was looking for more established and respectable subjects, these over-looked citizens are just as much a product and signifier of America now. The collection in this show seems to idealize most of the subjects, portraying these people as characters, acting in a way that the viewer would presumably envision them, with few exceptions. Some of the work adequately recontextualizes prominent figures, while others simply produce something that falls short of an expected head-shot on the cover of an unauthorized biography. The age-old struggle between perception and reality in portraiture is represented with varying degrees of success in “Americans Now.”