McLeod on the Outwin Boochever Portrait Competition
Deborah McLeod is the former Director of Exhibitions at the McLean Project for the Arts, a former Trawick Prize juror and currently resides in Baltimore, where she reviews art shows for the Baltimore City Paper. Below she writes about the Outwin Boochever Portrait Competition at the National Portrait Gallery.
I wanted to write about the National Portrait Gallery Portrait Competition for several reasons that I should reveal before taking the plunge. The first impetus had much to do with my brother in law, Rick Weaver, and his response to the show as a perfection-driven mannerist painter as well as a participating artist; the second had to do with the thoughtful, if protectively benefit-of-the-doubt exhibition catalog essay by Dave Hickey, and a subsequent bombastic review by Blake Gopnik; the third involved my own personal uncertainties on arguing this far-ranging, provocative collection of works and the hope that writing about it might gather it into a justly disposing order, at least for me.
Unlike the rest of the collection in the NPG, this show is not entirely about people but rather emphasizes portraiture itself. There is a great deal of converse and protective snobbery going on in and around the idea and its evidence, and that makes it especially interesting. In place of the more common event of bringing mutually minded authors together in a proportionately stretched envelope that doesn’t pop the glue, the NPG exhibition is like an envelope’s version of the world map busted apart and splayed. It is an idiosyncratic face off between traditionalist and iconoclast, each an acquired taste... but not by each other.
In lieu of Dave Hickey pondering how Alice Neel, Elizabeth Payton, Alex Katz, John Currin or Julian Opie portraits have faired so gracefully and exceptionally in the annals of art, let us imagine each of those artists early in their career (when we don’t know them), having one piece in this show. Would they stand out above the fray, look like Blue Chippers from the get-go, without their support machinery? I think that is the good and bad of this show – it is a fray – and fair or not it holds every artist in it individually accountable for their predicament, not just for summation through a single creation, but for boisterous interventions from their neighbors’ works.
If one Googles portraits, as I expect Hickey did in anticipation of his essay, and probably Gopnik too, it is easy to become somewhat crestfallen on the subject. This subcategory coexists with serious art as a commercial product potentially barren of any hierarchy. Even the silver-haired Portrait Societies offer a rather irregular insider vetting system.
On the other hand, turning the fame filters off, as well as allowing each participant only one work to defend their entire oeuvre as this show does, presents an opportunity to consider the modern predicament of humanity as a crowd of ones, how we transcend familiarities and inequities to intermingle in the disquieting presence and identity of other unlike individuals. The sitters in this array are essentially characteristic-studies for these portraits’ purposes, once separated from prepared, recruited places above some mantle or headboard. They are hardly the vanity patrons of the past, but despite bringing their own personal baggage to the studio, are principally the contrivance of the artist, just as it all is in Hickey’s “urban” art world.
This fluid exhibition diverts into two modes which relate to but barely coincide with Hickey’s breakdown of self, family and stranger. The two reduced to a nutshell genres are romanticism and journalism, with the latter being the most prevalent by far. Most of the artists demonstrate an aesthetic weaned on current event type shots, foreground personas posed in the aftermath of some notification, censure or honor (Jennifer Kryczka, Ginny Stanford, William Lawrance, Sharon Sprung, Armando Dominguez, and Amber Kappes incline in this direction), or candidly snapped in the midst of an event or phenomenon (Tina Myon, Bryan Drury, Jared Joslin), or looking provokingly antagonized by a recent adversity or long privation (Doug Auld’s overtly sensationalistic Shayla, Jenny Dubnau, Nathanial Lang, Catherine Prescott, Costa Vavagiakis’ poignant, palliative Arthur VI, and the epic portrait by James Seward).
There is no shortcoming in the close-up and personal stylistic approach. It is honest visual orientation that appropriately documents its period and place in this show. The subject’s location, far from being nowhere in time and space, is conventionally anticipated in an accompanying record; the “human interest” write-up. An imagined byline supplies the necessary rest in this cultural example. But there are many works of this sort that do involve journalistic backdrop compositions, even if reality is radicalized, or tampered with, such as David Lenz’s cover image, so I find it curious to read that Hickey feels the show bereft of them.
The romanticism of the portrait competition arrives in a variety of forms. But these forms are generally stitched together by the artists’ various indications of intimacy. Among this group are the most and least successful works in the show. Intimacy is a trap of sorts for the viewer. The most horrific example of romantic intimacy is Steve DeFrank’s Lite-Brite peg painting of his naked Mom and Dad aglow in acid green aura. It is retro brilliant in the way it envelopes the inauspicious subject in abject distaste. But it can’t be looked at for long, which could also mean DeFrank may one day be arranging for his Annie Leibowitz shooting. Other brands of portrait intimacy head for the more richly entwined emotions of empathy, tenderness and desire. This group does contain my personal favorites: Kris Kuksi’s utterly exquisite, fraught little Portrait of George Guillaume, the super-sized conning innuendo of Nina Levy’s hovering baby’s Large Head, the obscure, disorienting predicament that presents in Tina Newberry’s Epaulettes. The non-portrait by Nuno deCampos Magnet #3 whose stance, electrocardiograph dress, and taste in magnets and dinner options gives me much more satisfying information then Demi Raven’s useless, if au courant, absurdity, Monster v.4.
Above all, for me, is Joe and James by Brett Bigbee, which rivetingly flies above several late painters without ever exacting one in particular as it presents its two boyhood protagonists. Bigbee’s characters are inscrutable in some ways and on the other hand they are vulnerable, proud, predetermined, self-protective. Skinny boy-sphinxs, formed, but still waiting to be formed. And, because I’m drawn to the living film-strip format Sara Pedigo arranges in Winter to Spring, where the home milieu takes center stage periodically as the portrait, I would add this modest delight to my list.
I am however lost to understand what about Young Marriage by Justin Hayward garnered it a Commendation from the selection committee. It is sterile and self-conscious, bordering on that silly surrealist blip in time that we apparently just cannot shake, where special effects and unlikely attributes protect everyone from emotion.
The two paintings that Hickey identified as valorous and ennobling, by David Larned and Richard Weaver, are indeed. But, I cite that respectfully. What I shall say about their shared eloquent sensibility is how they each uniquely express in these portrayals a quiet, mythic longing, outside of time – in the fable of the resigned young woman who desires, in introspective solitude, something perceived as unattainable, or a liberator that doesn’t know of her whereabouts. This nineteenth century romantic intimacy seems silently signified in every line, shadow, curve and attribute, as it would have been then, its full story semi-disclosed in subtle clues. The subject may languish for requiring her dream, but her dream doesn’t languish for a byline.
The Outwin Boochever Portrait Competition’s in-depth coverage presents the choice conundrum for painters of people, and viewers of painting. That people do live subjectively as subjects, not objectively as objects, their stories are not symbols but allegories, even in the flashbulb fix of the news item. The artists that take them on do so that their art may track down the unruly and unfathomable interpretation of identity. If the NPG had settled on a collection of works that favored a particular sensibility or aesthetic, it might easily have slid backwards in time to become that silver haired European salon experience that one finds in their older installations. Their competition is made much more interesting, fresh, and thoroughly American by all the contrary, discordant arguments in their rooms. One needn’t find them all agreeable. To your corners now.
The Outwin Boochever Portrait Competition Exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, DC runs through February 17, 2007.