Contemporary Portraiture

by Alix Finkelstein

Brett Bigbee, Joe and James, 2001–03 Courtesy Alexandre Gallery, New York CityWhat do we want from portraiture? Ostensibly, a recognizable image of a loved one, a revered figure or a compelling personality. And yet, the encounter must also be one of surprise. We want more than “likeness,” and we rely on the artist’s imagination to help us see past a subject’s outward appearance toward a larger reality. As the twentieth century came to a close, there was a fear that the traditional methods of portraiture had entered a permanent decline. The theoretical diagnosis: failure to progress. Already under pressure from the expanding practices of photography and video, as well as the juggernaut that was abstract art, postmodern critics charged that portraiture could no longer successfully claim to accurately render a person’s individuality. Indeed, the very notion of a coherent self that could be defined within the graphic constraint of the drawn line was believed to be suspect. For artists, having the metaphysical rug pulled out from beneath a lifetime of work committed to the human figure was painful enough. But it was the accusation that artists lacked sufficient powers of inventiveness to push portraiture forward that hurt the most.
Fortunately, the polemics of portraiture did little to thwart its practice. Artists, both traditional and conceptual, continue to mine the genre’s rich and limitless territory for new means of creative expression, and their efforts have been rewarded with a resurgence of critical interest. Modern and contemporary portrait artists, such as Alice Neel, Alex Katz, Elizabeth Peyton and Kehinde Wiley, have all received major museum exhibitions in the last decade. And to further awareness of portraiture’s creative possibilities, the Smithsonian Institute’s National Portrait Gallery created the Outwin Boochever Portrait Competition, a nationwide talent search that recognizes the innovative efforts of emerging and mid-career artists. The competition, which attracted close to 3,000 entries this year, is open to all media, but, significantly, requires that the work submitted be the result of a direct encounter between the artist and the subject. According to Al Gury, chair of the painting department at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, portrait painting is alive and well in fine-art programs across the country. “Portraiture not only serves as a vehicle for making an artistic statement, it’s part of a student’s personal journey,” Gury observes. Recent graduates’ work ranges from highly expressive, almost abstract interpretations to carefully described, classically inspired representations. Who is considered an appropriate subject for portraiture has also expanded. So-called “society” portraits depicting successful or admired individuals continue to be commissioned, but there is also increasing interest in expanding the genre’s mandates to include less-recognized—even marginalized—members of society.
According to Richard Brilliant, professor of art history at Columbia University and theorist on portraiture, the continued fascination with artistic likeness is rooted in the infantile reliance on facial recognition, a crucial skill needed equally for attachment to the mother and the development of a separate identity. Portraiture, in effect, duplicates these critical early experiences and reinforces our constant efforts to understand ourselves in relation to others. Brilliant defines the portrait artist’s task as an investigation of three simple, yet provocative, questions: 1) What do I look like? 2) What am I like? 3) Who am I? When these questions are put forward by a willing subject, the artist’s challenge becomes to apply his or her ingenuity and empathetic insight toward a series of revelations that illuminate not just a person’s unique appearance, but also suggest a keen grasp of character. Portrait artists frequently describe their efforts as “collaborative,” recognizing that the process requires both the resemblance of the sitter and the necessary presence of the artist.
Throughout history, artists have made their own features, as well as those of family and friends, their primary subject of portraiture, and these intimate renderings have, in turn, aided our understanding of the great masters themselves. This tradition continues among artists working in portraiture today. William Beckman (b. 1942), who was the subject of a solo exhibition at Seattle’s Frye Art Museum in 2002, almost exclusively paints himself and his family. His oil-on-panel paintings are created in the studio, but often include a landscape of his family’s farm in Maynard, Minnesota. Deidra, a 2002 portrait of his adult daughter, exemplifies how Beckman’s precise realism combines the sharply delineated contours of Northern Renaissance artists and the blunt truthfulness of Grant Wood’s American Gothic. The sensitive scale of the portrait enables the viewer to experience a true “face-to-face” encounter with the artist’s stoical offspring, who unmistakably resembles her father. Depicted frontally, Deidra’s head and shoulders almost entirely fill the picture frame. She appears to float within a cloud-filled sky that dominates the background, but the furrows of a plowed field gently echo the rounded contours of her shoulders and anchor her to the earth. This field, owned by five generations of Beckman’s family, symbolizes the artist’s concerns for the disappearing ruralism that once defined American society and his own migration from the close confines of a small midwestern town to the complex environs of coastal cities.
Like Beckman, Brett Bigbee (b. 1954), an artist who lives in South Portland, Maine, and is represented by the Alexandre Gallery in New York, devotes his portrait efforts to his growing family. Bigbee is a painstaking technician who will spend years working on a single canvas. Within his oeuvre, Joe and James (2001–03) stands out as a riveting account of family relationships. Bigbee reveres the techniques of the Renaissance and, before beginning to paint, will first create a life-size drawing, itself a work of art, which he then transfers to the canvas. Working with a subtle palette of golden and cerulean hues for Joe and James, the artist, using his method of applying multiple layers of oil paint, builds a luminous surface that seems to glow from within. In opposition to the gentle color and soft surfaces, Bigbee’s sons stand alertly apart, each offering a wary gaze to the viewer. The older child faces forward, but his hands are clasped behind his back, signaling his secretive nature. The younger child, positioned slightly behind, consents to the protection of his older brother, but stands far enough apart to claim his own pictorial space within the frame. It is a fascinating depiction of sibling bonds and rivalry that rejects sentimentality in favor of sober consideration. 

Stanley Rayfield (b. 1987), a young artist who recently graduated from the Virginia Commonwealth University School of the Arts, captured second place in the Outwin Boochever competition with his oil painting of his disabled father, Ralph Gabriel Rayfield. Dad (2008), a monumental image set in the confines of a barren hospital room, does not break new ground technically, but deserves attention for the way the artist uses the human body to catalogue the consequences of chronic illness. Rayfield’s father stands erect, but his vibrant green-checkered robe falls open to reveal his sagging chest, heavy belly and the scars left by his open-heart surgery. An eye patch and oxygen tubes partially obscure his face. This is an emotionally driven work that paradoxically deploys the physical signs of human vulnerability to valorize a father’s suffering and convey his son’s admiration. Another compelling finalist in the competition, Practicalities (2007), is the work of Perin Mahler (b. 1963), an associate professor of art at California’s Laguna College of Art and Design. Mahler’s large-scale oil-on-linen portrait presents an impressively challenging overhead perspective of a room jammed with a young family’s accumulated domestic goods. The painting invites the eye to wander among the clutter of candy-colored plastic toys, diapers and baby furniture, but with closer scrutiny, the figure of his wife, stretched out on the floor and all but buried under the barrage of objects, becomes visible. The artist is marginally present as well; his bare legs protrude from the lower left corner of the canvas. Mahler’s humorous and honest depiction of his home’s disorder aptly captures the anxiety and fatigue of contemporary parenthood.
The desire to break through portraiture’s conventions of decorum, particularly in the depiction of the human face, is also what motivates Elizabeth Berdann (b. 1956), whose miniature portraits were the focus of a recent solo exhibition at the Contemporary Museum Honolulu. To create her miniatures, Berdann has embraced the eighteenth-century tradition of painting watercolor on ivory, an extraordinarily demanding practice that allows for few mistakes. The resulting effort, a work of art that can be held in the palm of one’s hand or close to the heart, evokes the deep attachment of the beholder and demonstrates the technical mastery of the artist. But while neoclassical artists presented the subject’s visage in a solemn or composed manner, Berdann seeks to explore the full range of facial emotion, from fear and terror to joy and laughter. Berdann, who often uses herself as subject matter, but also works on commission, mediates the intensity of expression through a leavening dose of humor and playfulness. Citing the historical precedent of Rembrandt’s remarkable series of etchings capturing his facial grimaces, Berdann believes that, in order to convey what a person really looks like, the artist must aim to capture the mutability of the human face.
If contemporary portraiture primarily explores the important question of how we define the self, a parallel development expands our understanding of who among us deserves the commemorative intentions of portraiture. This worthy endeavor has ensured that communities once rarely seen in museum galleries and public spaces are now staking their own claims for cultural recognition and that art audiences are now exposed to a broader range of individuals. For decades, Barkley L. Hendricks (b. 1945), an artist based in New London, Connecticut, has painted funky, life-size portraits of African Americans. After a long period of critical neglect, a recent career retrospective introduced a new generation to Hendricks’s hip, urban figures of the 1960s and 1970s. Similar attention has been given to Latin America’s rich history of figurative art. Artists such as Puerto Rico’s Myrna Baez and Mexico’s Nahum Zenhil are demonstrating how the personal and political dimensions of life in a post-colonial country make for captivating portraiture. Because the genre has widened its parameters to include diverse populations, there is also a rising egalitarianism seen in contemporary practice. These efforts stem from a desire to lift ordinary or otherwise unknown figures out of obscurity and consider them through the ennobling effects of portraiture. 

Elizabeth Egnaczyk, <i>Expressions of War #3</i>, 2008 <br>Courtesy of the artistWhen Elizabeth Egnaczyk (b. 1982) was earning her Master’s in Fine Art at the New York Academy of Art, she began painting a series of portraits of men serving in the United States Marine Corps. Her only visual sources were photographs provided by her brothers, who have both served multiple tours of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan. The series, “Expressions of War,” became her Master’s thesis, and she has already painted more than twenty-five portraits. The thick layers of oil paint found in Egnaczyk’s heavily encrusted surfaces suggest the use of brush, palette knife and even the artist’s fingers to shape her subject’s features into almost three-dimensional form. In Expressions of War #3 (2008), a doe-eyed soldier with a closely shaved head is presented against a rutted surface of viscous black paint. Large patches of reds and oranges give the soldier’s skin a fiery glow and suggest the physical trauma of war injuries, while the Stygian background brings to mind the geologic origins of the crude oil reserves awaiting extraction from beneath Iraq’s surfaces. The portraits are highly charged renderings of a group of men who together embody a creed and a brotherhood that, through her brothers’ deployment, Egnaczyk experiences as a part of her life as well. And while the artist takes care to ensure the men’s faces can be read as traditional likenesses, she pushes the descriptive and tactile properties of her paint to convey the personal turmoil of having family members involved in and affected by the ravages of war.

Melinda Hunt, Sonia Salim, 2009 Courtesy of the artist

Michele Zalopany (b. 1955), who has exhibited extensively throughout the United States and Italy, also draws inspiration from her family history and, particularly, her childhood experiences growing up in the racially fraught environment of Detroit, Michigan, in the 1960s. As part of a larger narrative told through a series of large-scale pastel paintings, Zalopany created several portraits of Detroit residents, including her father and mother. A small black-and-white portrait-studio photograph of her father, Herbert Zalopany, became the visual source for a monumental painting titled Pineapple (2006), a reference to the nickname given to her Hawaiian-born father by his local union. While the painting closely resembles its photographic source, Zalopany imparted to the image memories and feelings about her father who, though pictured as a young man in his military uniform, is now deceased. Choosing to work with pastels, rather than the traditional medium of oil paint, allows Zalopany to execute her superb drawing technique and also add pastel’s metaphoric weight to her subject. The powdered pigment, which must be erased, rather than scraped or painted over, reminds Zalopany of the disintegrating effects of urban blight on her home city.

Seeking to reclaim individuals “beyond recognition,” artist Melinda Hunt (b. 1958) has spent the last two decades immersed in a multimedia project dedicated to the destitute buried at New York City’s Hart Island. On a 101-acre site adjoining the picturesque Long Island Sound, this potter’s field is a final resting place for the city’s indigent population. What Hunt has found, however, is that, while many of the deceased may have left the world unclaimed, they are hardly anonymous figures. She has helped relatives to reconnect with lost loved ones through documents, photographs of the site and other aids. Lately, however, Hunt has extended her artistic practices to include drawings of the Hart Island deceased. These fragmentary images, based on photographs supplied by relatives, portray a population that resides between the lines of history. Hunt’s graphite and charcoal portrait Sonia Salim (2009) is based on a photograph provided by her daughters, who could not afford to bury their mother in a private cemetery. In the photograph, the subject is seen in her kitchen, arms outstretched as if she were caught in the early morning rituals of pouring a cup of coffee and reaching to open her refrigerator door to grab the milk carton. Her carefully plucked brows and delicate gold jewelry are somewhat at odds with her heavy-set figure and plain housecoat. For her drawing, Hunt removed the kitchen apparatus, but retained the subject’s outstretched arms and quizzical expression. The drawing is delicate and ephemeral, a graphic metaphor for the tenuous connections between the individual lifespan and the overwhelming forces of time. Hunt’s drawings evoke, most profoundly, the Albertian understanding of art’s “divine power” and portraiture’s foremost virtue: “to make the absent present.”

American Arts Quarterly, Summer 2010, Volume 27, Number 3