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).