Saturday, June 29, 2013

Portraiture Now: Drawing on the Edge

Where: National Portrait Gallery

When: through August 18, 2013

Yet another show of contemporary art in the former Patent Office building - this time at the National Portrait Gallery.  Unlike the skepticism with which I viewed the Nam June Paik offering, I was really intrigued and impressed with the artists displayed in this show of new portraiture.

As the large banner at the front of the show tells you, in the past 20 years, artists have moved beyond traditional portraiture, and are drawing with a new enthusaism and ambition.  The artists featured in this show are working at the intersection of drawing and photography, painting, video, textual writing and computer technology.  The thing that hasn't changed in the transition to "new" drawing is the commitment to make direct, immediate, highly personal marks on paper.  There's something about portraiture that's very intimate; I always feel as if I'm getting a glimpse into the life of the subject, and the relationship between the artist and the person posing for the work.  I suppose this is a bit voyeuristic, but I hope harmlessly so.  I'm confining my "peeping Tom" activities to publicly displayed artwork!

There are six artists featured in this display, which is easily managed in a lunch hour.  All of them are worth a look; I was particularly taken with four of them.

Rob Matthews' portrait of his wife Tracy shows her holding a skull she crocheted.  This work is in the hallway outside the room where most of his work is displayed, so I hadn't had a chance to read the description of his technique.  I confess I found myself more intrigued with Tracy than I was with the artist (who crochets skulls?!?), but once I had a chance to look at his other work, I became interested in him as well.  Matthews asks his subjects to hold an object that is meaningful to them and to think of nothing while he draws.  I couldn't help but think this makes it rather hard on the sitter.  To have to hold something, even something small, for a long time would get tiresome, and I've never yet been able to think of nothing.

Mary Borgman, on the other hand, asks the subjects of her monumental charcoal drawings to think of something important to them; I think I'd be more successful following that instruction.  Her works are towering, but they don't feel threatening.  They're more commanding than confrontational.

Adam Chapman constructs digital portraits; the computerized elements of the drawing move in a frame, gradually coming together to form a portrait, then moving apart again.  I'll admit, it's a bit frustrating to watch this process, as it seems to take forever for the elements to come together, and they break apart almost immediately.

Ben Durham makes his drawings out of text; he writes down everything he knows about the subject of his work.  He gets his subjects from the police blotter in his hometown of Lexington, Kentucky.  He draws the mug shots taken of friends or childhood classmates (he must have gone to a pretty rough school).  The words, when observed from a distance, form a picture of the subject.  Even when you get quite close, it's hard to read the words. 

Verdict:  If you think portraiture is still only oil paintings of aristocrats wearing ermine and holding globes to show their position in society, you really need to have a look at this show.  Very interesting work; it reminds you of the incredible creativity of the human mind.

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