With so many historic sights and outstanding museums, it can be difficult to prioritize what to see in Washington, DC. Busy tourist times, such as spring break, make it is a good idea to balance each day with places you know will be mob scenes with places offering escape. The National Portrait Gallery draws crowds but manages to disperse visitors so you feel almost alone amongst the many treasures this museum holds. So you can fight the crowds in the International Spy Museum, or the Ford Theatre, and then dart across the street into the Portrait Gallery, take a deep breath and relax. But don’t relax for too long…there is almost too much to see here and the exhibits can cause delight, new awareness, and even brain fatigue due to artistic and curatorial excellence. Because of the sheer size and number of outstanding exhibits, I will share some details and responses to just three of the current shows on display.
On the ground level, we visited the startling display, “Portraiture Now: Staging the Self.” As an artist currently in the middle of a self-portrait commission, I was curious and excited to see this exhibit and discover some methods, materials, and ideas contemporary artists are using to present images of the self. The six artists displayed are each of Latino background and four of the six use photography as their central medium.
We find ourselves in the era of the “selfie,” which gives me a certain discomfort about self portraits. In fact, as I speak about my current pieces, I find myself using the third person. For example, I’ll ask a colleague “Is her nose too long? How does she relate to the space?” I can’t bring myself to acknowledge that the image is me, wanting to avoid the elevation and hyper promotion of the self that our selfie culture propagates. However, the self portraits exhibited here are a far cry from selfies, which makes me ask, what makes these pieces so provocative as well as humble? How can art be aggressive, assertive, bold and patient, clever, discreet? The answer, I suspect, lies in the brilliant way the artists present larger, communal ideas in the work, making the art about so much more than themselves and allowing viewers to become a part of the idea as we bring our own experiences to interpreting the pieces.
Another element of success comes with a skill honed by many successful contemporary artists: the ability to make a complex method or idea appear straightforward and simple. This attribute, often unappreciated, may explain why some people see art and say, “oh, I could do that!” No, no you probably couldn’t. It looks simple, but it is not. There is a misunderstood brilliance in this artistic approach. For example, in the series, “Duplicity as Identity,” photographer María Martínez-Cañas presents photos that slowly merge her facial image with her father’s and communicate ideas about identity, passage of time, individuality, the undeniable role of genetics in our lives, and gender. The photos are straightforward, seemingly simple images but the ideas are complex and rich for various levels of interpretation.
Before heading upstairs, we warmed up in the beautiful central terrarium of the building (the tropical atmosphere of this enclosed courtyard provided a welcome warmth during a frigid week of weather). On the second floor, I expected to find a room of portraits by Elaine de Kooning. To my surprise, there are rooms and rooms of portraits. I can’t decide if my glee was caused by her use of color and energetic brushstroke, or the discovery of so many public figures painted by Willem’s slightly less famous but no less talented spouse, Elaine. Her style reminds me at times of Alice Neel (see below left). Both artists are able to capture the spirit and character of the sitter with great economy of brushstroke. And they both succeed in a skill I’ve struggled to acquire: careful and occasional placement of detail…just enough to provide essential information about the person.
One of my all time favorite Elaine de Kooning portraits (Harold Rosenberg, below left) appeared just before I exited the exhibit. Look at the feverish brushwork around the space and body juxtaposing the relaxed position of the figure. The languid position of Rosenberg’s body parts and his debonaire facial expression contrast the vigorous and energetic brushstrokes. It is like someone screaming the word “whisper.” Elaine’s portraits reveal the influence she and her husband had on each other. However, instead of abstracting beyond recognition to reach a deeper truth, she is able to parse out and emphasize a few recognizable details to present a likeness of her models as well as reveal an inner truth of each person’s character.
After the whirl of color and brushwork, I found myself in the exhibit titled, “The Struggle for Justice,” which was engaging on multiple levels and a lesson on the power of art to communicate vital actions and cultural messages. Activists from the 19th century to today, who have advocated in one way or another for social justice, are presented by various artists. The artists do not just present a physically accurate portrait in honor of the figures. Each artist creatively puts to use particular materials, design and composition to reveal information about the figure’s atmosphere, work, character and ideas. For example, in the portrait of George Washington Carver, painted in 1942, the artist emphasized his curious expression and methodical hands as he closely examines a plant. His work on behalf of sharecroppers and migrant farmers, his agricultural discoveries, and his interest in nature are evident due to the handling of paint, position of the body, facial expression, subject matter and painting composition.
The National Portrait Gallery has been exceedingly thoughtful about representing a wide range of advocacy work in “The Struggle for Justice.” There are portraits of people fighting for women’s rights, birth control rights, race related rights, education rights, voting rights, labor rights, and more. Experiencing the exhibit provides an intimate way of understanding the evolving laws and social needs of a still young nation. Perhaps my favorite piece was of Eunice Kennedy Shriver.
Created by David Lenz, the first place finalist of the Outwin Boochever Portrait Competition in 2006, the portrait beautifully demonstrates Shriver’s passionate advocacy for children with intellectual disabilities. She gazes fondly at a boy who looks at us boldly and knows he is seen in return. The rest of the group, representing children of several races, genders and ages, stands close together as one strong unit with the exception of a girl who has stepped forward into the light – her body has an angelic glow and her arm is raised in a hopeful position. The basking sunlight is powerful and hopeful and there are dark clouds behind them. The artist designed a composition that tells so much more than a traditional formal portrait.
Reading is only one way to learn about history and our leaders. Artwork is another way to learn; it is a visual vehicle that delivers thought-provoking information to viewers. When planning our trip to Washington DC, I failed to anticipate the degree to which the National Portrait Gallery communicates as it presents the work of some of the world’s best artists and some of the world’s most outstanding, engaging and informative portraits.
As usual, thank you for taking the time to visit my blog/portfolio site. Up next: the Arkansas Arts Center brings it. What, you ask? 30 Americans. It is a must see show with a must discuss agenda. I’m not sure I’m up for the task, but I’ll try my best.