8/3/10

"Just Portraits"

A couple of days back something happened and even though it didn't strike me as odd, it certainly made me realize some things. I was advising a student of mine on her thesis, and for her final work she decided to present some portraits. They were wonderful representations of strangers (strange being the key word here) based on pixelated images from one of her chatroulette sessions. She decided to represent what 20 minutes looked like. It was a really clever way to translate time into imagery, and not only that but she did an installation on the wall with the portraits based upon their geographic location. So it was space and time filtered thru a webcam converted into color theory and form thru painting. I honestly thought, even though it wasn't something absolutely avant-garde, that the work was brilliantly executed.

When it was time to judge her work, her judges immediately, one could say with ill will, questioned the fact that she chose portraiture out of all the possibilities at her disposal. I was somewhat baffled by this attitude, because one could start to blindfully criticize anyone's work by stating that it could've been solved in a different manner. I find it a strange practice to think, when looking at a painting, that it would've been best solved if it was a video or a sculpture. I am one of those people who trusts that the artist's decision to chose a particular language and subject matter over another is an educated choice. I trust that choice, and it is within those parameters that I am willing to experience the work of art. If that experience moves me or not is something entirely different.

I find that this happens a lot with portraiture in painting. Granted, there's a myriad of mediocre portrait painters that don't help the cause, but I guess the same could be said for any other manner or subject matter. There are tons of mediocre films and film-makers, video installations, sculptures, photographs... god there's a lot of bad photos out there... and yet I would be an oaf if I beleived that wonderful things could not be executed thru traditional photography today.

Portrait painting still carries the baggage of being wrongfully interpreted as an elitist-oriented, empty and superficial manner of describing and interpreting a human being. A generation after Freud and Bacon (both of whom have inspired and shaped thousands of figurative painters) people have become somewhat lost as to what to expect when looking for contemporary portrait painting. I fear they want novelty, but amusing and unfamiliar elements are not indispensable in creating great works of art. Humanity loves easily recognizable, iconic traits. They feel comfort when associating El Greco with elongated bodies, Caravaggio with chiaro-oscuro, Van Gogh with thick choppy brush strokes, Botero with an obese universe... I think that when people judge figurative work, they want to be taken into a new world, a world where they are presented (spoon-fed) with that new and identifiable characteristic, where there's no direct reference to Rembrandt or Sorolla or Freud or Bacon. Everything is new and delicious. It's as if we were constantly pressing a "refresh" button in the hopes of being finally surprised with a new flavor that will quench, even if momentarily, our visual demands. A Michael Bay gum.

Well, to hell with novelty for the sake of novelty. And don't mistake this as a cry for stagnation. It's just that art solely depends on fascinating and reflecting human beings. When an interesting artist decides that he or she wants to paint a portrait, then it will be unique. And not because uniqueness was his or her goal, but because the "story" that was told, the way it was told, could have only been declaimed by that specific person.

And after the rant, (you can tell my discontent with the judging of my student's work) I just wanted to show some portrait work that I find inspiring. Are they proposing something new? I don't care to answer that. They just animate me, and that's good enough for me.



Courtesy of (in order) RVK, Brendan Kelly, Sangram Majumdar, Sean Cheetham, Kent Williams, Anne Gale (bow down), and Adrian Ghenie (get his book, awesome).

10 comments:

Manuel Dupong said...

I find your analysis to be true and fascinating!

Shelly Wan said...

Gorgeous and inspirational! :D

carmackart said...

And a damn fine list of painters!

natalia said...

Uy Nicolás que bonito haberme encontrado esto, no sabe lo que fue para mi sentir eso que usted esta describiendo, un descontento hacia lo que debió ser y lo que hice, nunca sentí que mi trabajo fuera tan malo y tan "superficial" como ellos lo dijeron, se que mi texto decia mas cosas, pero una obra no tiene que tener todo, solo habia escogido una parte de esa maraña de ideas que tenía en lacabeza. Me pareció un poco cómico cuando la chica me dijo mirando de una forma muy peculiar, un pco asqueada, porque habia decido hacer " retratos"? Que es esa pregunta? Se puede hacer esa pregunta hoy? No se no me cabe en la cabeza eso. Nicolás me alegra mucho en serio leer eso, me devuelve un poco de lo que ese día me robaron, oiga porq no me mostró esa lista antes? Jejajajajaj un abrazo.

Rossina said...

Me gustó mucho leer este texto Nicolás. Y me encantaría ver el trabajo de Natalia.
Yo no sé cuál es la cosa con el retrato en el contexto de la academia artística. Tuve el mismo problema que Natalia en la Javeriana (no con ud. obviamente)y aquí en Francia es la misma cosa. Ya no hago Retratos, entonces la pregunta no es por qué hago retratos sino por qué escogí la pintura figurativa (también con asco y todo). Después de año y medio, todavía no sé cómo responder a esa pregunta con algo diferente a: "porque se me da la gana".

Aquí la mayoría de profesores se crispan con cualquier trabajo figurativo sin pretensiones intelectuales. No es suficiente querer "moverle el piso" a alguien. Expresiones que reflejen algo de irracionalidad como "gusto", "pasión", "emoción", "placer" o "fascinación" están prohibidas en el léxico artístico académico.
Lo más jarto es que yo no soy muy buena argumentando sobre el arte que me apasiona, mucho menos en francés. La próxima vez que me enfrente a un jurado tendré su texto en mente...

Camilo said...

I'm glad the jury I had to defend against, never brought the "why painting" issue on my self portraits, since the 3 of them are portrait painters themselves, guess I was lucky there.

Andrew Smenos said...

Interesting post...

Any relation here to your Kelley?
http://www.waterman.co.uk/pages/thumbnails/1.html

christian said...

bravo! love me some williams, mujumdar, gale,and ghenie. i heard sangram's lecture when he visited LCAD here and really enjoyed what he had to say. i also ran into your review for ghenie's book, i will definitely be picking that up soon.

eleanor said...

I admire Adrian Ghenies work greatly and I really enjoy reading your posts.

danielorduz88 said...

Del carajo, sobre todo por la tranasformacion y la importancia de la desfiguracion en bacon, yo que antes de empezar arte estube en psicologia, intentar entender el devenir y el movimiento en el rostro como tiempo, y movimiento, en la misma exprecion, era muy dificil desde la concepcion teorica y no practica.
Acdir a la desfiguracion como forma es habalr de muchas mas dimensiones en el retrato y volverlo casi una filosofia de transfiguracion.