Saturday, January 22, 2011

Portraiture right now.

It's difficult to get a grip on what an artistic era is really about, to sum it up and notice big trends until some time has passed. When I look around at this decade's paintings and sculpture, there's such a variety of art in top galleries and museums, but I'm just starting to notice what isn't there: portraiture. I'm excluding, for the moment, self-portraiture because the exploration of self is huge right now: heritage, the self in society, one's self as a marginalized person, one's own subconscious, etc. And there are some celebrity portraits too, but those are often by artists who have never met that celebrity, and I think their intent is usually to reference what that celebrity stands for, not to provide any insight into that person. What I'm not seeing is artwork that focuses on a separate, individual person for the sake of exploring that personality.

After Modigliani, Andrew Wyeth, David Hockney, Lucian Freud, Alice Neel... I come up a bit short. And when artists such as Elizabeth Peyton do focus on portraying others exclusively the thinking art world takes note of this idiosyncrasy and declares it ironic on some level.

After the seventies or so I have to look to photography to find many searching, insightful or dedicated portraitists. William Eggleston, Cindy Sherman (self-portraits, I know), Emmet Gowin, Arnold Newman, Nan Goldin, Annie Leibovitz. Most of the big headlines and controversies of photography have involved portraits: Sally Mann's kids, Diane Arbus inspiring ever photography student who ever set foot in an art school for at least the last fifteen years.

I would have guessed that because portraiture isn't shown often in top venues right now, it means issues of portraiture are simply no longer considered relevant in fine art-- but those same issues figure prominently in contemporary photography. I wonder if the difference lies in the way the two art forms are sponsored and by whom they are created and displayed. Paintings got bigger and more dramatic during the AbEx years, and then came PoMo installations and shows that take up entire galleries. I think painting and sculpture are seen as public events nowadays, whereas photography is still associated with ordinary people and family photos, as well as magazines that cater to ordinary people and with Myspace and Facebook usage. That makes photography seem smaller-scale in terms of production cost, therefore less is at stake. Perhaps that makes it more acceptable for photographers to simply portray a specific person, rather than make grand observations of society at large or explore one's own psyche in such a specific way as to be nearly universal and thus accessible to the public.

Then again maybe portraiture is no longer as esteemed in the eyes of the art world. There is, of course, the unsavory association with making a living. And perhaps as an interest in others, a form of art that is literally like a communication between two specific people (portraitist and subject), portraiture is seen as feminine, in contrast with grander, less personally specific themes of society, abstracted human experience, and massive abstract forms, which could be construed as masculine. And, being feminized, portraiture is not as valued today. Or portraiture could have fallen by the wayside during the Abstract Expressionist Movement, when a completely abstract portrait would, I'd argue, be possible but would certainly present problems for both artist and viewer. Portraiture would have continued to be sidelined by Conceptualism-- conceptual portraits are possible but also problematic-- and again by Pop Art because the movement's focus on pop culture would preclude a focus on individual non-celebrities.

I don't for a moment think portraiture is over. The genre is too basic, too essential to art history and human expression, to be abandoned. It's still alive and kicking outside of the elitest of white boxes but I expect the comeback to be from outsider art that makes its way into the art world.

Monday, January 17, 2011

Tamara de Lempicka

Auto-Portrait. I'm pretty sure this is a photo of the original, but this is a really popular painting to copy. I can see why; she's clearly a bad-ass.


Mrs. Bush. 1929. I think the knees in this are incredible. I also thought the skyscrapers in the background were kind of funny; she's like Ms. Modern Phallus.

Portrait of a Man. Notice the Michael Jackson glove.

Madame Boucard. She looks a little jowl-y, and de Lempicka has clearly idealized her a bit, to great effect. I can't help but wish I could see de Lempicka's take on this aging face without idealizing it, though; there would be fantastic planes and shapes for her to work with. I've seen a few portraits of older people, but they are in a less geometric style.

Kizette on the Balcony, 1927. Oil on canvas.

Femme dans Dentelle ("Lady in Lace).

Duchess of La Salle, 1925. This must have sent the oldsters with their Victorian morals screaming for the hills. I admire how she changed the placement of the buildings, which are usually rising like triumphant phallic symbols behind the subject. In this case they are at the Duchess's feet and a Baroque-style drapery surrounds the top of the figure. The Duchess appears in command of the past, and present, and her sexuality.

St. Moritz. It reminds me of Ingmar Bergman. Her understanding and exaggeration of eye sockets is amazing.

Grand Duke Gabriel.

Compte Vettor Marcello, 1933. (proto-"blue steel")

Irene et Sa Seur. 1925.

Telephone II. I think this is incredible. She looks so ridiculously girlish, like a grown-up Shirley Temple, and I think she might be wearing a sailor-suit of some sort to top it off. But she must be the most sinister, sexual Shirley Temple ever. The telephone, though, is what I can't get over. It reminds me of depictions of teenage girls from the fifties to the eighties or so sitting on their beds yakking into an oversized receiver and being OMG GIRLS. But the phone in this is menacing and black like a gun or masculine machine of some sort. It's more like a scene from a spy movie.


Tamara de Lempicka was born to an upper-class Polish family. She saw a man while out at the opera when she was just 15 and staked a claim to him as her future husband; three years later, they married. (I shudder to think who I might have ended up with if I chose my husband at 15.) They moved to Russia but then got stuck in the Russian Revolution and, being well-to-do, her husband was imprisoned. She apparently bribed and flirted his way out of jail, then they went to Paris.

Bohemian Paris in the 1920s sounds AWESOME. She slept with everyone: famous men, famous ladies, artists, actors, royalty. Her husband got fed up and left, but she rebounded with several very avant-garde lesbians. She painted the portrait of a Baron's mistress, then replaced her as the Baron's mistress, and eventually when the Baroness died de Lempicka and the Baron married and went to New York. There she met famous artists like De Kooning, Stieglitz, and Georgia O'Keefe, and probably had awesome sex with them all, and was a wildly successful portrait artist, till the late 1930s when her style changed and she abandoned commercial portraiture.

Her studio and professional conduct were apparently notable as well. People ask me about my studio, and I have to explain that it's more like a work-space, a stall in a warehouse and not a show-room of any sort. De Lempicka, on the other hand, was a glamorous celebrity who kept a large studio in the city that was part stylish lounge, part work-space. She painted in gorgeous clothes with a smock over them and most of her subjects were socialites and royalty.

I really admire her attitude as a portrait artist. Her subjects are in charge of the canvas, completely inhabiting every inch of space, even when they assume a traditional romanticized female "fainting limp-necked waif" posture. Someday I hope to keep a studio like that and command the type of presence she commanded in it. I'm also happy to see her work is getting more and more exposure. I think she's on her way to being an Andy Wyeth or M. C. Escher type of figure: enjoying wide popularity outside of the art world, and respect from within it. She wasn't very innovative, after all; this has watered-down elements of Fernand Leger's cubist style ("tube-ism;" I always hated his work) as well as watered-down elements of the hardcore cubists. She takes some color and atmosphere from deChirico, as well as his references to Classical Greek imagery, but doesn't push the envelope of subject-matter like the Surrealists. And then she borrows from the German New Objectivists, but her work isn't a deeply unsettling comment on post-war society. I think the attitude toward society generated by her paintings is most like an energetic, optimistic WPA mural. But every artist borrows; what she ends up with seems to work.


Edited to add: Wow, this appears to be a continuously popular post! so, all of you de Lempicka fans will probably enjoy this as much as I did.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Exit Through the Gift Shop: Banksy

Mister Brainwash, limited edition print for a London show.
Mister Brainwash (aka Thierry), Marilyn-Spock.

[Alert: every spoiler possible plus a bad attitude] I guess the movie is old news to everyone else, but I just saw Exit Through the Gift Shop last night. Banksy directed this documentary about a French man living in LA who decided to make a documentary about world-famous street artists like Banksy, Space Invader, Shepard Fairey and (I reluctantly mention) Borf. But the French-LA man, Thierry, was not a film-maker, and when he showed his weird-ass experimental film to Banksy, who had trusted this man with his secret identity, etc., Banksy felt that his trust had been broken. So Banksy made a film about Thierry instead.

We see Thierry the humble roadie following the famous street artists, filming and helping and putting his ass on the line. We see his wife (!) and kids (!) at home worrying about how to make ends meet while Dad roams the streets of Paris with a bunch of punks. We see him explain how he got into filming with a sad and genuinely touching story about how his mom died when he was a kid and now he wants to capture everything because he worries it will escape him as did his mother. The street artists are interviewed, Thierry the lovable imp entertains us, and then Banksy reveals: Thierry had ripped them off, fooled them into thinking he was a filmmaker. I thought, "Oh Thierry, you stupid jackoff. Look at your stupid film." And then we see Thierry go and mount his own uppity art show. Suddenly he thinks he's an artist. He takes out a second mortgage on his house to hire local starving artists to make pieces based on his instructions. They make a LOT of artwork. He gets a show, and markets it. REALLY well. The guy is, as it turns out, a good showman, and a risky but confident businessman. "Oh Thierry," I thought, "You uppity Frenchman. You're practically stealing the work of REAL artists like Banksy and Shepard Fairey and SELLING it at a massive profit! That's capitalism for ya--whoa, you just made over a million at your first show! Bastard. It's like the emperor's new clothes. Everyone around you knows it."

But at that moment I remembered, "Hey, Banksy directed this thing. Could it be a little... biased?" I considered the interviewees: wouldn't Banksy's friends share his opinion? Wouldn't low-paid artists resent their rookie boss? Wouldn't Thierry's fans sound like morons, since most random people off the streets of LA sound like morons? Hmm. And look how Banksy focuses on how Thierry (gasp!) didn't make the work with his own hands. And look how he shows Thierry thinking about (gasp!) making a living. Look how he's pretending to be an artist.

Wait a minute, though: didn't Thierry just spend years as a sort of apprentice to the best of the best? Hasn't he been making videos his entire life? And wasn't his work they just showed really witty and entertaining?

When the film opens Banksy explains that Thierry wanted to make a film about him but Thierry was just more interesting than Banksy, so the film was about Thierry instead. But now I'm thinking it was a little more malicious than that, more like, "Hey let's turn the camera back around on that traitor Thierry and see how he likes it!"

By the end of the film I had formed some opinions on both men. Thierry seems maddeningly irresponsible, charming, egotistical and full of joi de vivre. He seems like a real artist who thinks had about what he creates, like the director of a play. I enjoyed how he mixed graffiti with a very Warhol-looking pop-art language. He, perhaps unwittingly, mixed two bitingly ironic forms of art into a vernacular that is very appropriate and sincere for a man his age, his socioeconomic status, his town of LA. Wouldn't it deserve a big old eye-roll if a relatively well-off middle-aged white dad decided to go undercover and become a anarchy-touting graffiti artist?

And Banksy. That man is way too rich, famous and adored by the entire fucking world to play the underdog. The irony of a graffiti artist who uses other people's property without asking and makes it his own, having his precious trust broken by an fan who isn't as experienced as he let on is a little much. And he's counting on an audience of seventeen-year-olds and seventeen-year-olds-at-heart who won't think too deeply about this. People who are just waiting to be told by someone they trust, "this is great art. This other stuff isn't." People who think they're rebellious but hold surprisingly conservative opinions: Artists should be too idealistically pure to make money. Art is only real art if the artist made it by hand. Ideas in art are fine, but only if contained in impressive displays of craftsmanship. Real artists are self-sacrificing geniuses of truth who look like a dictionary definition of a rebel. They're just waiting to be told that what they already believe is right. And they desperately want to be in on Banksy's joke.

At the end, both men seemed extremely common: adult children in the Neverland of an Art World already oversaturated with man-children.

11 Portraits of Paris Hilton. Just because.

Karen Kilimnik, Marie Antoinette Out for a Walk at her Petite Hermitage, France 1750.

Jane E. Porter, Paris Hilton Painting: What's a Soup Kitchen?

Justin Lear

Jonathan Yeo

Self Portrait from jail, according to BoingBoing. (I love that she used a straight-edge for the lines in this piece!)

Ralph Ueltzhoeffer

Too bad I couldn't re-post some of the other portraits.

Oh, and I found this review of Karen Kilimnik's awesome installation:
"Karen Kilimnik's artistic persona is that of a daydreaming, scatterbrain American teenager eating unlimited amounts of candy among the splendours of, say, the Wallace collection. Installed for this exhibition within a series of specially constructed 18th-century (ish) rooms, her paintings - such as a portrait of Paris Hilton as Marie Antoinette - hang in what looks like Walt Disney's idea of a stately home. Fashionable art writers approve of Kilimnik's excesses of superficiality and surface. Like teachers showing favouritism towards an extremely pretty - but dumb - pupil, critics have given her top marks. But go and see for yourself. Neal Brown"
Infantilizing? check. Misogynist? check. Pompous? check. Oh wait, my bad-- male artists are totally described as dim-witted, childlike, superficial sex-bombs scheeming for attention while breaking their diet. All the time. Sometimes I hate the internet.

Ishbel Myerscough

Ishbel Myerscough, Sir Willard Wentworth White.

Ishbel Myerscough, Sleeping Man.

Ishbel Myerscough, Self Portrait.

Ishbel Myerscough, Dame Helen Mirren.

Ishbel Myerscough, Dame Helen Mirren.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Jill Hooper

Jill Hooper, Self Portrait. 2001. One of the coolest things at the Gibbes.

My favorites from the Gibbes Museum

Edward Greene Malbone, Louisa Charlotte Izard. 1801.

Unknown artist, Sophia Jane Withers. 1805.

Thomas Sully, Sarah Reeve Ladson. 1823.

John Russell. Juliet Georgiana Gibbes. 1803.

Samuel F. B. Morse, Emma Doughty, 1820.

Thomas Sulley, Catherine Mierckin. 1814.

Thomas Sully, Charles Izard Manigault. 1817.

Sir Thomas Lawrence, Portrait of Lady Caroline Lamb. c. 1805

Unknown painter, Charles Pinckney. 1740

The Gibbes had portraits from around 1700 - 1950, with a special "contemporary Charleston" section from around 1970-1995. In the 1780-1850 room I was reminded of Virginia Woolf's description in Orlando of the change between the Enlightenment-era 1700s to the 1800s: as if everyone was suddenly bundling up to protect themselves from a stealthy dampness. As if the 1700s were airy, exciting, idealistic and illuminated by the crystalline light of reason. Then came the stuffy, materialistic, pragmatic 1800s. The difference between the centuries in portraiture was dramatic. My favorite era, though, was the Napoleonic Era, around 1805-1820ish. It was delicate, idealistic and effeminate; but the stiffness of the 1770s had gone out of style and an effortless rural style was in vogue, due to the threat of decapitation levied on the more metropolitan aristocrats during the French Revolution. The subjects from this time looked like flawed human beings, relaxed but portrayed as their ideal selves. Forty years later, everyone looked selfish, constipated, and defensive. Portraiture seemed to mostly suck until 1910 or so.

I think the Napoleonic portraits are the stuff that is relevant now, that we draw from as traditional portraitists or rebel against in order to move forward: realistic, attractive, elegant. The subject as a distinct person has been called into question by artists such as Andy Warhol, who used depictions of people as an allusion to the cultural celebrity fetish, and by many photorealists, who depict people as visual objects. But the Romantic idea of an individual subject, and portraying the "essence" of the subject, though considered quaint by many, is still a part of some very important contemporary work. These Napoleonic portraits bring to mind contemporary artists such as Jenny Saville and Elizabeth Peyton.


Ladies, would you let an artist paint your portrait if his art was notoriously misogynist? Whether or not Edvard Munch's art is misogynist is, of course, up for debate but I've always gotten the distinct impression that women in his artwork belong with death, destruction and teh eeeeeevil s-e-x. I mean, even his painting of the Virgin Mary is really... vampy. Like she's having a naughty Lord-gasm. So imagine my surprise when I came across this thoughtful, insightful and lucid portrait. Her body is portrayed skillfully as an expression of an attitude rather than a decoration; her face is a very appropriate balance between an invitation to admire and a window into her thoughts. I also admire the mix of her passive gaze "off-screen" and her solid, almost swaggering stance.

Edvard Munch, Birgitte Prestoe. c. 1924.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

New Year's Resolutions!

1. To be able to complete at least one push-up by 2012. I gave this a good try last year and although I achieved two granny-style push-ups in a row at one point, I ultimately failed.

2. Leave the house more.

3. Be braver about asking people and scheduling people to do non-commercial portraits.

4. Eat more vegetables.

5. Make at least $1000 more than in 2010.

6. Have my work in at least TWO shows.

7. Don't look down at the ground when I'm out in public. I'm not in DC anymore; I don't have to avoid eye contact!