Esperanza Spalding, up close but not personal

 

In May, 2013, artist Bo Gehring won the Outwin Boochever Portrait Competition, a triennial survey, exhibition and award sponsored by the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery. Gehring’s winning portrait was a video, made with a camera mounted on a track, slowly panning at close range the body of a woman named Jessica Wickham. The subject, a furniture designer, was a friend of Gehring’s, and the video was an intensely super-intimate view of its subject, revealed slowly from her feet to her head, while a piece of music she chose—a slow, dirge-like composition by Arvo Pärt—was heard in the background.

Now Gehring is back with a new work commissioned by the Portrait Gallery, using the same formula: The subject chooses a piece of music, then lies face up on a table while being slowly scanned by the camera. The video lasts exactly as long as the piece of music. The difference this time is that the subject is a celebrity, and that changes everything.

Gehring’s new portrait is of Esperanza Spalding, the multiple Grammy Award winning singer and jazz bassist, who (famously/infamously) beat Justin Bieber in the “Best New Artist” category at the 2011 Grammy Awards. Spalding wears a skirt made of some kind of gauzy gold material, diaphanous and prismatic, and seemingly stitched together from delicate, patchwork pieces. The music she chose (Wayne Shorter’s “Tarde”) is a track from a 1974 album featuring the Brazilian singer Milton Nascimento and pianist Herbie Hancock: “Herbie, Milton and Wayne are a part of me,” she explains.

The slow pan begins with the appearance of Spalding’s high-heeled shoes, seen against the rough, beige fabric which covers the industrial table on which she is lying. But from then on, for almost three minutes, the video is nearly abstract, as the camera frame is entirely occupied by the elegant, shimmering material of her gold dress. One wonders if Spalding was self-consciously hoping the video would recall the use of gold patterns in the works of Gustav Klimt. One of Klimt’s most famous gold paintings, the portrait “Adele Bloch Bauer I,” made news when it sold for $135 million in 2006, the same year Spalding released her debut album.

The abstract episode lasts until around the 2:47 mark, when the musician’s hands come into view. From then on, the portrait becomes increasingly animated—we see the subject breathing, and await the appearance of her neck, face and hair. Yet our sense of Spalding remains at a remove, veiled by the mask of her celebrity, her comfort with the camera, her thoroughly polished sense of self. We are waiting for a proper cinematic “close up,” an encounter with her face, and when it comes, it is flawless: Her lips are spread in a slight smile, her pearly white teeth visible in between. She doesn’t flinch from the agonizing scrutiny of the camera. The final moments of the video show a few strands of her wild and gorgeous hair, poking out from the top of an elaborate, almost regal headdress.

Unlike the video which won Gehring the portrait competition prize—in which the appearance of his friend’s face takes on a profound sense of tension and unease–the arrival of Spalding’s face is rather a disappointment. She is too controlled, too self-consciously not self-conscious. The performer’s mastery of her presentation almost defeats the portrait.

Almost, and yet there is something revealing in the Spalding video, too: It is the degree to which being a performer, and a celebrity, involves a profound loss of self. No camera will ever get closer than Gehring’s, no scrutiny will ever be more invasive. Spalding resists it with impressive discipline. And yet you almost wish she would flinch. This is the basic dance of desire and hiding that animates the whole spectacle of fame in our society. The camera can’t get any closer, and still it reveals nothing, leaving the viewer feeling a bit cheated, a bit aggressive, and a bit disgusted.

CorrectionAn earlier version of this story incorrectly reported Esperanza Spalding’s name. This version has been updated.

 

Philip Kennicott is the Pulitzer Prize-winning Art and Architecture Critic of The Washington Post. He has been on staff at the Post since 1999, first as Classical Music Critic, then as Culture Critic.
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