In the high-concept, mixed-media, boundary-blurring world of contemporary art, traditional genres like landscape, still-life or portraiture can seem like relics from a by-gone era. Institutions such as the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery force us to re-evaluate the significance and future role of these seemingly old-fashioned genres. The NPG describes itself as “a place where our nation’s stories are told through the remarkable individuals who have played a role in shaping who we were, who we are and who we are becoming as a people.” Portraiture does not simply tell us about the sitter, it reveals truths about that person’s culture, community and time period. By studying contemporary likenesses, we can gain a window into today’s world. “Portraiture Now: Communities” at NPG explores the broader implications of portrait paintings and how individual pieces take on new meaning when viewed in conjunction with an artist’s entire body of work. The exhibit is the fifth installation of NPG’s “Portraiture Now” series, which explores how contemporary portrait artists reinterpret the discipline.
“Portraiture Now: Communities” focuses on three painters, Rebecca Westcott, Rose Frantzen and Jim Torok, who each delve into the nature of human connection by painting subjects from families, towns and groups of friends. Westcott is arguably the most innovative artist in the show. Until her untimely death in 2004 at the age of 28, she painted her fellow artists and other young people whom she met while living in Philadelphia. Her raw, touching images led her to become one of the youngest artists to receive the Pew Fellowship in the Arts. Westcott associated with the Space 1026 artist collective where she was influenced by the DIY or “Do-It-Yourself” street-art movement. Her paintings reflect the city’s gritty aesthetic. Westcott’s subjects have the twisted, tortured look of Egon Schiele drawings and the flat, outlined, and unfinished quality of Alice Neel’s portraits. Despite their edge, her images are compassionate and humanistic. When describing her work, the artist said “I tend to think of each painting I do … as a way to pare down to the essentials, to capture only the most important aspects of that person.” Although her images are economical in their use of detail, the information that she gives us is specific and closely observed. She carefully replicates vintage typography on cotton t-shirts and recreates her sitters’ tendency to fidget, squint or slouch. At the same time, Westcott does not emphasize aspects of a person that don’t interest her. While she might include the first signs of wrinkles in a sitter’s furrowed brow, their legs are frequently left an amorphous, blue-jean colored blob. This uneven attention to detail adds to the raw, folk-arty quality of her paintings.
Rebecca’s pieces, more than the work of the other artists in the show, truly give us a sense of community. Her affection for her subjects is visible. By capturing their mannerisms and imperfections, she brings these people to life. In one series, “Jo,” “Jo and Chris,” and “Chris,” Westcott paints two lovers, by themselves and then together. In “Jo and Chris,” a kind-eyed bohemian with thick glasses and a long Methuselah beard wraps his arms around a lovely young woman who smiles contentedly. Chris and Jo radiate the inward contentedness of two people deeply in love. Westcott does not attempt to pretty them up. Jo’s auburn hair is swept up messily. Her boyish figure and baggy mismatched clothing suggest a hint of adolescent awkwardness. Chris’s too-small blue T-shirt betrays the hint of a pot-belly that naturally skinny men often develop in their late twenties when bad nutrition and a lack of exercise finally catch up with them. When alone, Chris and Jo seem awkward and out of place. Chris’ head is cocked to one side and he seems distracted. Jo has the fidgety gestures of a naturally shy girl. Her feet, clad in pink socks and childish party shoes, turn inward and her hands try to burrow into pockets that her cheap summer skirt doesn’t offer. When these two people are together, they come into their own. Chris stops spacing out and gazes contentedly at the viewer. Jo loses her girlish awkwardness and displays a womanly maturity.
The characters in Westcott’s paintings all seem connected by age, culture, location, and artistic bent. One has a sense that Westcott is truly chronicling a community of like-minded individuals and giving us a sense of who they are and how they live. By contrast, Rose Frantzen’s portraits of the residents of Maquoketa, Iowa, her hometown, seem to share little more than a penchant for baseball hats and Midwestern haircuts. For this project, Frantzen rented a storefront on Main Street, and advertised her willingness to paint anyone who stopped by the studio. After a year, she had created 180 12” by 12” portraits of Maquoketa residents. Each skillful portrait was created over the course of 4 or 5 hours using the alla prima technique, in which the artist paints wet into wet. The portraits are realistic, traditional and conservative in style. For the most part, Frantzen focuses on the sitter’s head and shoulders, centering them on the canvass and portraying them looking straight at the viewer.
The artist saw this project as a great opportunity to make portraiture more democratic. She has said of her subjects “you don’t need money or stature or accomplishment. You are worthy because you are here, in this town, in this time.” Unfortunately, Frantzen’s attempt to democratize portraiture has also taken the intimacy out of the endeavor. Westcott’s paintings are poignant because of the artist’s deep connection to the sitters. By contrast, Frantzen’s portraits seem anonymous.
While her painterly skill and interest in physiognomy are obvious, Frantzen does not seem overly curious about her subjects. She arranges her paintings in groups, either as triptychs or like tiles in a large rectangle of portraits. Because of the apparent emotional distance between Frantzen and her sitters, these assemblages do not seem like a portrait of a town, but rather like a collection of faces with little connection to each other. To accompany the paintings, the artist and her brother, John Frantzen, created an audio mix assembled from interviews in which her subjects discuss their lives in Maquoketa. Like her paintings, this recording is devoid of intimacy. It jumps from speaker to speaker without giving you enough time to get a sense of a person’s voice. The result it a hodgepodge of clichéd remarks about the joys of family and the friendly nature of small towns that would make the most sentimental listener cringe.
Jim Torok, the final artist in the show, is easily the most technically gifted. He makes tiny paintings on sanded-down wood panels, each just few inches by a few inches. Despite their modest size, each gem has a mind-blowing amount of detail and can take almost a year to complete. The small paintings are lovingly crafted. Torok’s color choices are also masterful and the paintings seem to radiate with an inner light. Their detail, and the frontal pose of the sitters, who are placed in the middle of the panels give the pieces a vaguely spiritual quality that is reminiscent of Byzantine icon paintings. One of the strongest paintings in the show is “Lorna,” Torok’s mysterious portrait of a beautiful young woman of about 25. While miniscule, the painting is astonishingly powerful. “Lorna” is hung on a wall by itself, as if to give it room to breath. The subject’s snowy-white skin, watery blue eyes and dark eyebrows are contrast starkly with her crimson sweatshirt and dyed day-glow red locks. Torok gives the background a greenish tinge to contrast the brilliance of her hair and clothing. The astonishing amount of detail, the tremendous amount of work that went into crafting the tiny piece and Lorna’s serene expression and frontal pose give her the air of a modern day Madonna. Despite her imperfections, nose rings and edgy attire, Lorna becomes an icon of contemporary feminine beauty.
Like Frantzen, Torok paints his subjects from a frontal view and crops the image around their shoulders. Unlike Frantzen’ work; however, the awesome amount of detail that Torok includes gives his paintings a strange sort of intimacy. He also does not generalize his subjects’ features. You feel that the laugh lines, freckles and eyebrows are unique and specific to the sitter. In one project, Torok paints 23 members of a single Colorado family. The viewer moves from awesomely rendered face to awesomely rendered face, squinting to observe every detail. Torok captures the familial resemblances between his subjects, but also explores how they are separated by age, gender and personality. He has an uncanny ability to render flesh. You stare in wonder, noticing how a father and son have identical features, but that the boy’s white, unblemished skin bears no resemblance to his father’s leathery, possibly alcohol-reddened complexion. Torok’s paintings of his friends and fellow artists are even more interesting than the portrayal of the Colorado family. His conservative, hyper-realistic style contrasts interestingly with the colorful and eccentric people he portrays, whose ranks include several well-known artists, such as Lawrence Weiner, Trenton Doyle Hancock and Bruce Pearson.
Overall, “Portraiture Now: Communities” is a very satisfying show. It is interesting to compare the very different formal and intellectual approaches that the artists used to explore the idea of community. Moreover, the exhibit affords us a primal enjoyment that we rarely experience at contemporary art exhibits. There is something wonderful about getting to know a person through their likenesses. Portraiture has always been about creating a connection between the subject and the viewer. Ultimately, Westcott and Torok are far more successful than Frantzen in helping us forge this link. At the same time, all three artists are very skilled technically and it is a pleasure to roam through the exhibit galleries, contemplating what it is that binds together the many faces on the walls.
Portraiture Now: Communities will be on view at the National Portrait Gallery through July 5, 2010.