Equally defying precedent, however, is the way people are portrayed. Unlike models for traditional portraits, these subjects can be seen in reflection, or with their faces obscured or not visible at all. “The Outwin 2022” acknowledges that the ways we think about identity today are more complex than in centuries past, when prominent aristocrats, politicians and financiers posed for oil paintings meant to convey dignity and status.
“The Outwin” is short for Outwin Boocher Portrait Contest, created by Virginia Outwin Boocher (1920-2005), longtime professor at the National Portrait Gallery. This year’s competition is the sixth in the triennial series, inaugurated in 2006, and was co-organized by competition director Taína Caragol, curator of painting, sculpture and Latinx art and history. , and Leslie Ureña, curator of photographs.
The top prize went to “Anthony Cuts Under the Williamsburg Bridge, Morning” by Alison Elizabeth Taylor, which combines intriguing subject matter with unusual technique. The artist used a modified style of marquetry — an ancient decorative method of applying pieces of veneer to a wooden surface — to capture a pandemic-era view of an outdoor barbershop. Stylist Anthony Payne is seen from behind, with his masked face visible in the mirror he uses in his work. The mirror’s ornate frame contrasts with Payne’s casual attire and the graffiti-stained cityscape.
Taylor is among several artists who portray mirror gazes. The same goes for Melissa Ann Pinney in her public toilet photo “Portrait of Jael” and Paul Mpagi Sepuya in a nude self-portrait in which he is entwined with another naked man, the artist’s face mostly hidden behind his camera. Even darker are the faces in Laura Karetzky’s “Toast,” a painting that includes people reflected and distorted by a chrome toaster.
Other entries describe the idea of an individual more than their physical presence. A naked man faces the viewer in the painting “In Love With My Best Friend”, based on a composite of stories shared with artist Robert Schefman. In David Hilliard’s photographic triptych “Dad, at Manmade Pond,” the unseen title subject exists as a creamer in a coffin-like urn in the foreground. TR Ericsson’s “Bride” is a wispy version of a wedding photo of his late mother, rendered in sepia nicotine stains. (Yes, she was a smoker.) Mom is alive, but distant, in New York-based Cheryl Mukherji’s “Promise Me,” a video compiled from surveillance footage of her mother in India.
Mukherji is not alone in rejecting the single-frame portrait at a time when video is almost ubiquitous. Lois Bielefeld offers a 20-minute documentary about her mother’s religious practices, based on the faith her daughter does not share. Rebecca Blandón documents Glen Eden Einbinder’s search for places and things called “Glen Eden”, a quest that serves as a kind of conceptual autobiography. Holly Bass offers a condensed video of a performance piece in which she dances to a soundtrack of speeches and songs, mostly by black women.
Just as Bass’s performance sums up multitudes in a single figure, Narsiso Martinez’s drawing depicts all farm workers with an illustration of just one: an anonymous masked laborer, drawn and painted on a flattened cardboard box used to transport cherries. Laotian refugee Pao Houa Her epitomizes the loss felt by immigrants to this country in a photo of an unnamed lonely man at a Hmong seniors’ center in Minnesota. Rigoberto Gonzalez mimics the style and composition of a 17th century painting to depict an archetypal migrant family at the American border wall. Joel Daniel Phillips personifies black people out of history with his meticulous drawing, based on a Depression-era photograph of an unnamed man whose likeness was made, but never released, by the federal Farm Security Administration. (The drawing is accompanied by a poem by Quraysh Ali Lansana.)
As Phillips’ article points out, photographic imagery is essential to recent portraiture, even if only indirectly. Still, a few of the images sum up their subjects. Stuart Robertson’s self-portrait, made mostly of bonded metal, is cropped to show only the lower half of his head, and Timothy Lee places a cut-out fabric face over a torso printed with high-contrast photos from his South Korean childhood. Where traditional portraits testified to the arrival of their subjects, Lee’s suggests that identity is still emerging.
Outwin 2022: the American portrait today
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