Monday, July 4, 2011

Americans Now

Where: National Portrait Gallery

When: through July 10, 2011

This show made me think about the difficulty inherent in collecting modern portraits: who will merit a portrait here in 100 years, and who will have been consigned to history's dustbin? Obviously, Barack and Michelle Obama will be remembered long after all of us looking at this exhibit are gone, but what of the others in this show?
I think Maya Angelou is pretty likely to be remembered; LL Cool J, perhaps not. Likewise, Willie Nelson - yes; George Strait - no.

In addition to playing this guessing game with the portraits, the wide variety of media used to make portraits is incredible. The Wall Street Journal's hedcuts get a mention; interestingly, this method of portraiture allows the newspaper to take pictures from many sources, even if the quality of the original image is not that good.

A self-portrait of Chuck Close was quite remarkable, in that the only way to see the stretched out image properly is to view it as a reflection in a cylindrical mirror. Too cool. There were also videos of various people who were put in a cube for 1 hour to do something of personal interest. These were done by Lincoln Schatz as part of Esquire's Portrait of the 21st Century.

I also noticed a piece called "Late Night Triad." It's three screens showing blurry videos of Leno, Letterman and Conan. Supposedly, you can't decipher their faces, but I recognized them immediately. I think there was meant to be an audio portion of this, but it sounded only like random buzzing.

Also notable was a portrait of Ben Bernanke made up entirely of pieces of one dollar bills - a bit obvious, perhaps, but still, cut up pieces of money are probably pretty tough to work with, so I have to hand it to the artist, Mark Wagner - he did a good job.

Finally, there is the Obama Hope poster by Shepard Fairey. Now that the election seems so far away, and things have become so complicated, even for Obama's supporters, I find I view that poster with some melancholy, along with the feeling of "yes, we can."

Verdict: A very interesting show, and one I recommend. It's not terribly large, so plenty manageable for a lunch hour.

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