Portraiture has become increasingly conceptual as it addresses not only personal identity but also issues of politics, social inequity, and our obsession with celebrity.
In her show last spring at Greene Naftali Gallery in New York, Rachel Harrison exhibited bright-colored, rough-hewn sculptural representations of famous people—Cindy Sherman, Johnny Depp, and Claude Lévi-Strauss. Al Gore (2007) took shape as a big, vertical block with a stuccolike dappled pink, green, and red surface with a dial thermometer stuck on one side. The Gore depicted here is not the politician, but rather the Oscar-winning director, celebrity author, and evangelist for saving the planet. Harrison’s show—titled “If I Did It” in reference to O. J. Simpson’s unpublished book—revealed how our views of people and the world are contoured by mass media.
Harrison is one of many contemporary artists making portraits that are often not even recognizable as such. “Portraiture is going through something of a renaissance, with a steadily developing conceptual line,” observes Sarah Howgate, curator at London’s National Portrait Gallery. Many artists now use portraits to comment on larger issues, such as individual identity, social inequities, politics, celebrity obsession—and the genre of portraiture itself. But where artists like Sam Taylor-Wood and Elizabeth Peyton have tended to venerate icons of their generation, today’s younger artists have become more concerned with the effects on celebrities of media manipulation and unrelenting attention. “Artists working with portraiture these days are usually using it as a foil,” says Tom Eccles, executive director of Bard College’s Center for Curatorial Studies. “They’re more quoting from portraiture.”
One novel investigation into the way celebrity and cultural memory intersect is Keith Edmier’s installation Keith Edmier and Farrah Fawcett (2000). Edmier invited Fawcett, who also makes art, to collaborate with him; each made a sculpture of the other as a nude. Edmier portrayed Fawcett as a reclining marble figure, looking as he remembered her from the 1970s TV series Charlie’s Angels. Fawcett, who had no prior knowledge of Edmier, cast him as a standing figure in bronze as she saw him, but she idealized his features. Together the sculptures, shown at Friedrich Petzel Gallery in New York, expose how fantasy and reality mix in our perceptions.
In the right context, a famous person can stand for a generation, just as that generation’s view can define the person. In an effort to capture celebrities through their audiences, South African artist Candice Breitz, who is represented by White Cube in London and Sonnabend in New York, made video portraits of Bob Marley (Legend), Madonna (Queen), and Michael Jackson (King)—all 2005—and of John Lennon (Working Class Hero) in 2006. In none of these does the subject actually appear. Working Class Hero is a 25-channel video installation showing 25 fans, all singing Lennon’s 1970 debut solo album, Plastic Ono Band, in sync from beginning to end.
Douglas Gordon and Philippe Parreno (represented by Gagosian and Friedrich Petzel, respectively) took a more direct approach in their film Zidane: A 21st Century Portrait (2006), which was made before the French soccer star’s famous head-butting incident at the World Cup. They used 17 cameras to track Zinédine Zidane through a single game, focusing on him exclusively. We see him spitting, frowning, placing his hand on his hip, and occasionally springing into action. The sound track shifts from fans to commentators to silence. The real dramatic moment occurs when Zidane cracks an uncharacteristic smile.
“The Zidane film really tackles how you make a portrait today,” says Nancy Spector, curator of contemporary art at the Guggenheim Museum in New York. “It’s about using today’s media and popular culture. It’s not traditional—it’s constantly moving. It creates a psychological portrait.”
Reality TV shows, in which participants more actively reveal themselves, offer another kind of psychological rendering. In his documentary film the return of the real (2005), which was short-listed for the 2006 Turner Prize, British artist Phil Collins invited former guests on talk and makeover shows who felt their lives had been ruined by the appearances to tell their stories at a press conference he set up in Turkey. He hired a Turkish reality-show director to interview each participant. By putting these people in the limelight, Collins makes the ethics of exploitation and the audience’s interest in it the subject of his portraits.
Collins, who shows at Tanya Bonakdar Gallery in New York, also creates video portraits in which politics, youth, and pop culture intersect. For each work, he sets up a task: in they shoot horses (2004), Palestinian teens participate in an eight-hour dance-a-thon, and in baghdad screentests (2002), filmed during the run-up to the invasion of Iraq, 40 Iraqi youths audition for a nonexistent Hollywood film. These young people from regions defined by political strife behave like teens anywhere. Collins’s video is an uncontrived portrait of the people behind the headlines.
Homing in on media representations and their distortions, French artist Valérie Belin and Japanese artist Kazuna Taguchi each consider the ways in which women are idealized in popular imagery. They examine its effects on how they see themselves and how they are perceived.
For her 2006 series “New Faces (Portraits),” Belin, who shows in Paris with Galerie Xippas and in New York with Sikkema Jenkins & Co., hired 12 young models, 6 men and 6 women, selected from the catalogues of top Paris modeling agencies. The models’ skin in the photographs is made up and flawless, and Belin uses light to create a flat, two-dimensional impression of almost supernatural beauty.
Taguchi, who is represented by Tokyo’s Taro Nasu Gallery, cuts up images of women that she finds in fashion magazines, scans them together, paints on them, and then rephotographs them to achieve seamless portraits of composite ideals. The effect is akin to seeing someone who has had too much cosmetic surgery—the parts are all in place, but something is not quite right. Both artists consider how people measure themselves against these standards.
German-born Conceptual artist Oliver Herring also makes composites, but to different ends. His recent show at Max Protetch in New York featured three-dimensional sculptures, which he made by collaging photograph fragments of individual people. The almost cubistic representations reveal different information from various angles. Herring also lets people portray themselves (you are what you do) through tasks and games that they perform. For example, he has them spit food dye onto their bodies and clothes as if they were canvases. They do so for hours, until they are exhausted, and then Herring documents those moments.
Performance is also a component of German artist Olaf Nicolai’s work, which examines stereotypes and personal aspirations. For Blond, a piece he first made in Tilburg, the Netherlands, in 2003, he opened a hair salon for one month and invited people to get a bleach job free of charge. He advertised in local papers and put in the salon’s windows images of famous blonds, including, of course, Andy Warhol, as well as images from artworks in which blond is a key concept. Nicolai, who is represented by Galerie EIGEN + ART in Berlin and Leipzig, took before-and-after shots of each person, though he only shows the after shots—the achievements—which look like standard school yearbook photos.
Photographer Vivan Sundaram, one of India’s most distinguished artists, considers personal identity in the context of ancestry. He examines his own background in the series “Re-take of Amrita” (2001–4), based on old photos of his aunt Amrita Sher-Gil, a famous painter who died at age 28 in 1941. Sundaram shows digitally manipulated photos of her as a child, a teenager, and a young woman in Paris. The artist’s hand becomes evident when his aunt appears twice in the same frame in different outfits, or when her homes in Paris and India overlap, or when she is depicted years after her death with her parents as elderly people. Sundaram creates a world where past and present coexist. He examines how his family history is interwoven with that of modern India, and how even his own decision to become an artist was entwined with his heritage.
New Yorker Brian Alfred seeks to convey his own identity in terms of people he chooses to associate with. Since 2005 he has been working on head-shot paintings of people he admires—from his wife and friends to musicians, artists, and people he has never met—often modeled on images gleaned from the Internet. He plans to exhibit 500 of them together, formulating a different kind of genealogy.
The power of the portrait may turn up in the part—which stands, of course, for the whole—as in veteran painter Francesco Clemente’s portrayals of collectors, shown at New York’s Mary Boone Gallery, where the focal point of the paintings is the flirtatious, spike-heeled shoes of the women collectors posed jauntily in the air. The mood is in the shoe. Emerging artist Victoria Burge also focuses on legs and feet in drawings and paintings of touchingly spindly legs in schoolgirl socks, conjuring their owners’ youth and vulnerability.
Political and social critiques play a large role in portraiture, especially in China in recent years. In the 1990s, when the Cynical Realist and Political Pop painters made hard-edged, angry, and ironic portraits of Mao, comrades, and Red Army soldiers, portrait painting was everywhere. More recently, however, Chinese portraiture has turned more contemplative and personal.
Yang Shaobin, once a Cynical Realist himself, spent much of 2006 producing “800 Meters,” a series of paintings featuring miners from his hometown, covered in dirt, often smiling despite the hardship of their jobs. The series underscores the humanity of these often forgotten workers, whose faces are portrayed as strikingly individual. The series is part of his Long March Project, which tracks Chinese history and cultural development. Yang Shaobin, whose work can be seen at the Long March Space in Beijing, has written, “In my paintings I aim to convey a sense of disquiet, that hidden agenda which it is often hard to put a finger upon, but which is really responsible for the horrors the modern world is facing.”
The 29-year-old Chinese photographer Cao Fei, who is represented by the Lombard-Freid gallery in New York, has made a number of video portraits, including an 88-minute film of her father, a sculptor, incorporating footage of him making a statue of Deng Xiaoping for an official revolutionary museum. Perhaps her most powerful film yet is Whose Utopia? (2006), which presents anonymous factory workers—the individuals behind the “Made in China” stamp—at a lightbulb factory. Cao Fei divides her work into three sections. The first is documentary, showing the workers at their jobs. The second reveals some of the workers’ fantasy lives—dreams of being a ballet dancer or a rock star—acted out inside the factory. In the third part, the individuals look directly at the camera, and the audience is forced to regard them anew.
Artists Kehinde Wiley and Robert A. Pruitt address African American identity and social issues. Wiley, who shows at Deitch Projects in New York, makes immaculate paintings, inserting black males in street wear into the canon of Western European portraiture and posing them as saints or prophets. Pruitt, by contrast, works with symbols: a beautiful sculptural ring of handcuffs, for example, or his humble yet dramatic sculpture Glass Slippers (2005), composed of sneakers covered in shattered beer bottles, which he showed at the Whitney Biennial last year. His works can be viewed as portraits of African American society in general, and of himself, the artist, merging hip-hop, found objects, and sophisticated art-making tactics.
In Britain, Hew Locke uses portraiture to question power structures. He grew up in French Guiana, where he recalls seeing the image of Queen Elizabeth on his schoolbooks every day. Her significance seemed very abstract and unfathomable to him from that distance, and he still finds it difficult to understand. To put her in perspective, he re-creates the Queen’s portrait as it appears on currency but uses brightly colored, cheap plastic toys, garlands, and other paraphernalia, as in Black Queen (2004). “My feelings about the royals are ambivalent,” Locke says. “I am simply fascinated by the institution and its relationship to the press and public.” He adds, “My political position is neither republican nor monarchist. I am interested in producing powerful, magical images of the royal family.”
Some portraitists conjure images through words or the combination of words and pictures. Parisian artists M/M, who are also graphic designers for fashion-world clients, have been collaborating with writer Stephanie Cohen to make text portraits of their friends and colleagues—who include Björk, Kate Moss, Douglas Gordon, Marc Jacobs, and Nicolas Ghesquiére—as well as collectors who want to commission them. The collaborators write a text for each in a style they feel befits the sitter. Since Gordon is a Scot, his portrait reads as if it were an obituary for a Scottish lord, while Björk’s is constructed as more of an abstract, poetic narrative. They then frame the paragraph and, in the case of the famous friends, display it on a gallery wall. The portrayals commemorate an individual in a historical, literary, or social context.
“Portraiture is vital—increasingly so,” says Dan Cameron, curator of such international biennials as Istanbul in 2003 and Taipei in 2006 and newly appointed director of visual arts at the Contemporary Arts Center in New Orleans. “We are losing our identities through the bombardment of media imagery. Portraiture shows us who we are and how we feel about who we are: our identities. It’s like a barometer.”
Pernilla Holmes is a London-based writer and curator.