Portraiture Now: Drawing on the Edge


Editorial Review

By Michael O’Sullivan
Friday, July 12, 2013

Portraiture Now: Drawing on the Edge” is drawing to a close next month, as is the National Portrait Gallery’s latest round of Gallery 360 talks featuring artists with work in that exhibition, which showcases a variety of unusual drawing techniques used in contemporary portraiture.

On Saturday at 2 p.m., artist Adam Chapman will discuss his video animations, in which human faces gradually coalesce out of a soup of seemingly random lines and stray marks before dissolving into incoherence. The final “Drawing on the Edge” talk is July 20 at 2 p.m., when Mequitta Ahuja offers insight into her series of staged self--portraits featuring the artist in the guise of various heroic figures.

In fact, there’s fiction on display
By Michael O'Sullivan
Friday, December 7, 2012

There’s a wide variety of style and technique on display in “Drawing on the Edge,” the seventh in the National Portrait Gallery’s envelope-pushing series of contemporary portraiture exhibitions, “Portraiture Now.” Organized around the theme of drawing, the six-artist show includes watercolors (by Till Freiwald), mixed-media paintings (by Mequitta Ahuja) and digital video (by Adam Chapman), along with examples of traditional drawing in charcoal and graphite.

Yet even among those artists whose technique hews more closely to old-school notions of draftsmanship, there are intriguing deviations.

Mary Borgman draws with charcoal, but on a surface of plastic film instead of paper, creating a result that’s midway between the illusionistic grain and depth of a photograph and the warm, almost wet feel of a painting.

Ben Durham uses graphite (a.k.a. a pencil), but in service of a conceptual end. His portraits are rendered not in lines but in tiny, almost illegible words. The artist’s source materials are mug shots of friends and acquaintances from the police blotter of his home town of Lexington, Ky. The text he uses -- unedited and fed by a stream of consciousness -- consists of whatever the artist can remember, or has ever been told, about the subject.

The graphite-on-paper work of Rob Matthews probably best exemplifies what most of us think of as “pure” drawing. Rendered from photographs and executed over 60 hours, the artist’s small but meticulous portraits of friends and family members have no fancy bells or whistles, but they’re psychologically, and even spiritually, rich. Matthews poses his subjects holding a single, iconic object -- usually something of great metaphorical meaning for the subject.

Most of the other “Portraiture Now” artists also utilize reference photography, along with some combination of direct observation and drawing from memory. You can even see the shutter-release cable used by Ahuja in her colorful self-portraits, which feature photos and video of the artist “performing” to reimagine her in the guise of figures from history and myth.

But photography is not the sole connection between the work of these disparate artists. Rather, it is the elusive nature of truth itself.

For Ahuja, her art is less about identity than invention. Her self-portraits suggest that who a person is involves more than what she looks like. Similarly, Matthews’s portraits call to mind religious iconography; his subjects almost take on the attributes of a patron saint, represented by a talismanic object.

Durham also mines the seam between what a person looks like and who he or she is (or was). His text-based portraits of childhood classmates and acquaintances in trouble with the law are neither entirely clinical nor subjective, but somewhere in between.

Freiwald and Borgman each impose an external challenge on themselves. Freiwald takes reference photos of his subjects but then sets them aside, rendering his monumental watercolors -- often over months -- from his own imperfect memory of the subjects’ faces. For her part, Borgman typically works with strangers she has met on the street, in effect short-circuiting the connection that sometimes comes from close familiarity with a subject.

Whatever his or her technique or style, each of the artists of “Portraiture Now” recognizes -- in fact celebrates -- a central theme: A portrait, for all its literal verisimilitude, is as much a fiction as a fact.

By Michael O’Sullivan
Friday, November 16, 2012

Portraiture, through the act of close attention and painstaking technique, often establishes a bond between artist and subject that you can feel as well as see. The seventh exhibition in the National Portrait Gallery’s Portraiture Now series, “Drawing on the Edge” focuses on the work of Mequitta Ahuja, Mary Borgman, Adam Chapman, Ben Durham, Till Freiwald and Rob Matthews, each of whom pushes the definition of drawing, and psychological portraiture, in new directions.

The story behind the work
By Michael O’Sullivan
Friday, December 7, 2012

The slipperiest portraits in “Portraiture Now” don’t even look like people at first glance.

Titled with the various sitters’ names (“Annie H.” or “Cliff S.,” for example), Adam Chapman’s digital video portraits -- which mostly look like slow-motion footage of leaves and twigs blowing in the wind -- have their roots in drawing. Each portrait combines elements of three sketches of the subject made by the artist and then digitally unmade, so that what you see is not a finished drawing but scraps and fragments of the originals, floating across the screen like the flotsam of a deconstructed likeness.

Periodically, those scraps come together, coalescing for a fraction of a second into a recognizable face before melting away again. According to the artist, the “generative” portrait is never the same, from one second to the next. That’s a pretty cool use of technology, not to mention an effective metaphor for the imperfection of memory.