Contemporary Portraiture in the United States: Through the Lens of the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery's "Outwin Boochever Portrait Competition"

Dorothy Moss

Magazine issue: 
#2 2014 (43)

By a process of projection and introjection of theimage, the body comes to have the abstract "form," the abstract totality, by which we know it... We continually project the body into the world in or¬der that itsimage might return to us: onto the other, the mir¬ror, the animal, and the machine, and onto the artistic image.1

Susan Stewart


In this vein, "The Economist" recently published a special report in which museums were described as more community centres than temples of high culture:

"To be sure, museums remain showcases for collections, and repositories of scholarship, but they have also become pits of popular debate... They are no longer places where people look on in awe but where they learn and argue, as they would at universities or art schools. Sir Nicholas Serota, director of Britain's Tate galleries, describes the museum as 'a forum as much as a treasure box'."2

One of the National Portrait Gallery's signature exhibitions, "The Outwin Boochever Portrait Competition", enlivens the museum's spaces every three years by provoking discussion and debate about contemporary art and highlighting new directions in the genre of portraiture in a variety of media. Another outcome of the competition is a demonstration of the Museum's commitment to artists and contemporary art as an integral part of its programming. One of the most basic questions that the exhibition raises is essential to our mission: what constitutes a portrait in our increasingly global, media age? Unlike other National Portrait Gallery exhibitions that investigate a key historical subject or group of subjects, this competition and exhibition engage the museum visitor with notions of cultural hybridity and accessibility through the artists' artistic processes. As museums are shaped by globalization, museums also shape national identity, and the Outwin Boochever Portrait Competition is part of that larger dialogue. In a museum of art, history, and biography, the competition engages our mission on multiple levels. Competition juror, the art critic Peter Frank spoke to this in his juror's statement in the exhibition catalogue:

"I think the variety embodied in our necessarily limited selection reflects the variety of submissions overall, but it also reflects the variety of artistic activity in America and the range of expression possible here. We have always been a multicultural society, practically founded on a principle of creative miscegenation. This exhibition, I believe, displays the principle - not because we wanted it to, but because it wants to."3

The competition and exhibition provide a window into the variety and breadth of how artists working in the United States (though not necessarily U.S. citizens) approach the subject of identity on a national stage. Open to all media, the results are often surprising, and as one of the National Portrait Gallery's most popular shows, it is well trafficked, even by visitors who do not usually gravitate towards contemporary art.

For this third exhibition in the series, the National Portrait Gallery held an open competition, asking artists throughout the United States to submit likenesses of people they had directly encountered either in passing or over an extended period of time. From more than 3,000 entries from every state, a jury of experts chose 48 works in a variety of media. The jurors for the 2013 competition included, Brandon Brame Fortune, chief curator, National Portrait Gallery; Peter Frank, writer, curator, and critic, Los Angeles; Hung Liu, artist and professor; Richard J. Powell, John Spencer Bassett Professor of Art & Art History and professor of African/ African American studies, University of North Carolina, Durham; Wendy Wick Reaves, interim director, National Portrait Gallery, Washington, D.C.; and Alec Soth, artist, Minneapolis, Minnesota.

Not surprisingly, the more conceptual or abstract works engendered the strongest reactions among the jury and museum visitors, especially the portraits that allow an encounter with the unexpected that expands or pushes the limits of the genre of portraiture. First prize-winner Bo Gehring's portrait of woodworker Jessica Wickham evokes intense empathy upon recognition. This empathy, when shared among viewers, can stimulate a heightened sense of community within the spaces of the museum and open a space for debate about the nature of subjectivity.

Gehring's process involves scanning the body of the subject with a video camera at an intimately close distance, revealing what the eye could never see in motion, in time with a piece of music that the subject has chosen. This process allows Gehring to capture the subject's emotional response to music over time. In his portrait of Jessica Wickham, who chose to listen to Arvo Part's "Cantus in Memory of Benjamin Britten", the face does not appear until approximately five minutes into the duration of the piece, yet viewers stand mesmerized in front of folds of corduroy trousers that seem to extend for miles like a runway or highway, followed by stretches of a soiled, quilted, lime-green jacket beneath which a lint-strewn purple turtleneck gently rises and falls with the breath and heartbeat of the subject. The viewing experience is akin to "flying" over a landscape of fabric, skin, and hair. The unsettled beholder is absorbed in part of a triangular relationship between artist, subject, and viewer, a small community that is integral to the meaning of this portrait and to portraiture broadly.

While Gehring sees his video work as extensions of the photographic portraits of August Sander and Richard Avedon with the added elements of sound and motion, he also thinks of the portraits as historical documents that connect to the 19th-century notion that a photograph might capture the subject's spirit. In other words, that the photographic portrait had the power to make something that is invisible visible. Along these lines, Gehring's portraits also relate to innovations in contemporary sculpture, particularly the work of the Berlin-based artist Karin Sander, who makes miniature portraits based on body scans. She writes of her work: "... the work must both reveal something and also remain mysterious. It must transcend itself and gesture towards something that was not previously visible. In other words, it must render something visible that is already present but that has hitherto escaped perception, that exists in a latent state.4

The intensity of Gehring's approach and process is contrasted by the seeming levity of second prize-winner, Jennifer Levonian's cut-out watercolour animation, "Buffalo Milk Yogurt". In the animation, Levonian shows her musician friend Corey Fogal unravelling while shopping in an organic market. The brilliance of her work lies not only in the mastery over the challenging medium of watercolour but in her rendering of the ambivalence of everyday life. Levonian explains her time-intensive process in simple terms: "For each animation, I make dozens of painted watercolour backdrops, cut-outs, and puppets. Then I animate the cut-outs through stop-motion. I shoot digital photographs and edit them using Final Cut."5 Levonian's work is a cross between a William Kentridge video and a Pierre Bonnat painting. Her sensitivity to expression and her ability to expose social codes of behaviour in a snapshot of our historical moment is skillfully revealed in each watercolour puppet.

In a different vein, Sequoyah Aono, who won third prize for his quietly powerful and sensitively rendered life-size self-portrait, uses the medium of wood to consider the "instability and uncertainty" of daily life. Having recently moved from Tokyo to New York, Aono's approach to his portraits and artistic process is akin to a spiritual journey, drawing on the inspiration he finds in ancient Christian and Buddhist imagery. Constantly searching to understand what unifies people of diverse backgrounds he writes, "I feel that humanity is created from the invisible space enveloping each of us and our feelings, such as mercy, love, jealously, and hatred... I try to express this space by carving my own body."6 Aono's work recalls that of the German sculptor Stephan Balkenhol, who uses a hammer and chisel to gouge his work out of a tree trunk leaving the traces of the chisel evident on the wood surfaces. Balkenhol wants to strip his subjects of narrative so the viewer can project him or herself onto the subject. Similarly, Aono writes of his work, "In order to understand my circumstances, the world, and myself at present, it is inevitable that I carve. I think carving is the media that allows me to stand up for myself, to be alive, and to confirm my existence."7 In confirming his existence, he confirms our existence as viewers.

The art historian Marcia Pointon recently made the claim that, "Self-portraiture. has re-entered by the back door, so to speak, first on account of a concern with subjectivity and how individuality is configured and represented, and second on account of visual and verbal signs."8 This claim is evident not only in the strength of Aono's self-portrait sculpture but also in the sheer quantity and variety of self-portraits in the exhibition. Katie O'Hagan's "Life Raft" is an example of a painted self-portrait where the artist's hands and eyes are powerful visual and verbal signs, literally and figuratively protecting and saving the artist. O'Hagan's vision of herself painting her way out of drowning emerged in a dream and the resulting image is an operatic one, what the art historian Mary Sherriffdescribes as a"postmodern riffon Theodore Gericault's 'The Raft of the Medusa'."9 Similarly, Ginny Stanford's "Birth of Inez Imake" emerged from a dream that the artist had where she unknowingly encountered herself in another guise. The apparition that appeared when she went to paint the subject of her dream was her own face looking back at herself unflinchingly, providing her with the inspiration she desperately sought to continue working. Her comments about the self-portrait are poignant and haunting and, like Aono and O'Hagan's self-portraits, suggest the power of the self-portrait to validate and rescue:

"In the summer of 2010 I dreamed of an artist named Inez Imake.

"Actually, I dreamed her paintings - wondrous, vivid abstractions cut through with gold, and I dreamed her signature written in a voluptuous hand at the bottom of each canvas. Remember her name, the dream urged. To remember was the most important thing.

"Awake in the full light of day, I typed Inez Imake into a search engine hoping to find a website where I could see her paintings again, download them, and keep them. Then I understood. She didn't exist in conventional reality. Her name was a riddle containing the gift of freedom. My work changed. I began to make abstract constructions that were uncharacteristically playful and deeply satisfying.

"Inez stayed with me. A year later I decided to paint her portrait. As I worked I asked her, 'Who are you?' She answered by revealing my forgotten face."

The notion of sculpting or painting oneself (back) into existence is also poignantly captured in Saeri Kiritani's "100 Pounds of Rice". Made of Japanese rice and rice noodles, the self-portrait simultaneously rises and melts into a pile of loose rice. Kiritani, who felt self-conscious about her eating habits and cultural traditions when she moved from Japan to California, views the cupped hands as both taking from and giving to American culture. In the context of the National Portrait Gallery, this giving and taking is a powerful cross-cultural statement and points to the charged space of the museum as a forum for dialogue about the challenges of coming to terms with cross-cultural identity.

Other self-portraits in the exhibition explore the intersection of art and science and the relationship between the eye, hand, and brain. For example, Lia Cook's "Su Brain Tracts" discovers the "dance" of her brainwaves in woven self-portraits that combine photography, textiles, and video. She describes her process in the following terms:

"I work in a variety of media combining weaving with painting, photography, video and digital technology. My current practice explores the sensuality of the woven image and the emotional connections to memories of touch and cloth. Working in collaboration with neuroscientists, I am investigating the nature of the emotional response to woven faces by mapping in the brain these responses and using the laboratory experience both with process and tools to stimulate new work in reaction to these investigations. I am interested in both the scientific study as well as my artistic response to these unexpected sources, exploring the territory between scientific investigation and artistic interpretation."10

Cook's innovative approach to studying empathetic response to a woven face contrasts with the photo-realism of Leslie Adams's charcoal drawing "Sensazione: A Self-portrait" in which the artist takes control of her mind after suffering a stroke by depicting herself examining images of her own brain. The fear of losing vision after the stroke drove her to make a self-portrait honoring the words of Michelangelo: "A man [draws] with his brain and not with his hands."

Departing from self-portraiture yet still picturing the body of the artist is Heidi Fancher's aesthetically and emotionally powerful "For Delia", based on a daguerreotype of a slave named Delia who was photographed in 1850 by Joseph Zealy. The eyes of Delia haunted the artist and compelled her to recreate Delia posing herself as Delia. In Fancher's act of recovery I think of the cultural historian Susan Stewart's words, "By a process of projection and introjection of the image, the body comes to have the abstract 'form,' the abstract totality, by which we know it."11 With the artist's projection and introjection, Fancher makes Delia whole again, and this act serves as a metaphor for the continued relevance and power of the Outwin Boochever Portrait Competition to the mission of the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery in its bridging of the past and present to make sense of our historical moment through history, art, and biography.

  1. Susan Stewart,"On Longing: Narratives of the Miniature, the Gigantic, the Souvenir, the Collection" (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 1993), p. 125.
  2. The Economist, London. December 21 2013, p. 3.
  3. Peter Frank,'Jurors' Comments'. "The Outwin Boochever Portrait Competition 2013", exhibition catalogue, Washington: National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution, 2013, p. 21.
  4. Harald Welzer und Karin Sander: Ober das Sichtbarmachen, Ein Gesprach,
  5. Jennifer Levonian, Smithsonian Institution, National Portrait Gallery's Face to Face blog:
  6. Sequoyah Aono,'Prize Winners', in "The Outwin Boochever Portrait Competition 2013", exhibition catalogue, Washington: National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution, 2013, p. 28.
  7. Sequoyah Aono, Smithsonian Institution, National Portrait Gallery's Face to Face blog:
  8. Marcia Pointon, "Portrayal and the Search for Identity" (London: Reaktion Books, 2013), 200.
  9. Mary Sherriff, 'The Portrait Now and Then', in"The Outwin Boochever Portrait Competition 2013", exhibition catalogue, Washington: National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution, 2013, p. 10.
  10. Lia Cook,
  11. Susan Stewart,"On Longing: Narratives of the Miniature, the Gigantic, the Souvenir, the Collection" (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 1993), p. 125.





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