The winners were announced Friday: First prize went to Bo Gehring of Beacon, N.Y., who won $25,000 for a video titled “Jessica Wickham”; second prize went to Jennifer Levonian of Philadelphia for her video “Buffalo Milk Yogurt”; and Sequoyah Aono of New York won third prize for a self-portrait sculpture.
Portraiture is an inherently conservative medium. When the competition was first held in 2006, it didn’t include video art, and it still emphasizes artists working in the figurative tradition. But the focus, wisely, is on the process of making portraits, rather than the Portrait Gallery’s other mission, the memorialization of famous people. The parameters of what qualifies as portraiture have also been widened, and the show this year is a synoptic overview of how many serious and highly skilled artists are grappling with the old enigmas of making human likenesses.
The artists who this year rose to the top of the Boochever contest — a self-conscious attempt to imitate the annual competition held at London’s National Portrait Gallery — might be divided into those who concentrate on surface and those who look at depth, distinctions not to be confused with superficiality and profundity. The surface artists seem to accept the reasonable proposition that a visual medium can only register visual information, and so they struggle to find new ways to register that data. Often their focus is on flesh and details of flesh, with warts-and-all honesty. The depth artists are more interested in inchoate things, such as consciousness, memory or identity, using side channels and roundabout ways to gather and fix impressions.
The first-prize-winning video is in the surface category, rigorously so. Gehring, an artist with a background in science, slowly pans, at close range, to methodically document his subject, a friend and furniture designer, from toe to head. Jessica Wickham, dressed in blue-gray corduroys and a grubby, zip-up jacket, lies face-up on a cloth-covered platform while the camera scans her at such close range that the sides of her body can’t be contained within the frame. The timing of the camera’s motion is synced to a piece of music chosen by the subject, Arvo Part’s “Cantus in Memory of Benjamin Britten.”
The process suggests medical imaging, applied not to the interior mysteries of the body but its knowable surface. Wickham can be seen breathing under her clothes, and when the camera reaches exposed flesh, her hands and face, it registers all the imperfections. The power lies in the contract between the artist and the subject, the latter submitting to extraordinary scrutiny. Near the end, Wickham looks away from the camera, a tacit acknowledgment that there is something very uncomfortable about being the subject of Gehring’s camera.