Portraiture's Harsh Lessons

David Lenz's
David Lenz's "Sam and the Perfect World" took top prize in the Outwin Boochever Portrait Competition. (Courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery)
By Blake Gopnik
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, June 25, 2006

We are not an art gallery. We are not an art gallery. We are not an art gallery.

The National Portrait Gallery repeats this like a mantra. Officials explain that the museum is about giving us a look at the "remarkable Americans" its pictures show. It isn't mostly about the art -- significant or not -- that happens to represent those important countrymen.

Still, on the occasion of its grand July 1 reopening in its grandly renovated digs, the National Portrait Gallery -- which, let's remember, is not an art gallery -- has done a favor of sorts to artists who visit.

By hosting a huge competition of portrait painting and sculpture, then displaying the 51 finalists from 4,000-plus entries, the National Portrait Gallery teaches some important things about contemporary portraiture. The exhibition of the Outwin Boochever Portrait Competition is like a compendium of moves not to make in turning a picture of a human being into a work of noteworthy contemporary art. It's very hard to imagine even the very best of the 51 finalists' pieces ever getting into the Smithsonian American Art Museum, which is just across the hallway from the portrait gallery and is all about good art.

Here are some worthwhile lessons -- mostly don'ts but also a few do's -- to take home from this exhibition.

Don't think high realism equals art.

A huge percentage -- something like four-fifths -- of the works in this show spend most of their energies on looking like the world, or at least like a photo of it. (Four-fifths of that four-fifths seem like they're actually based on photographs, though it's hard to tell for sure.) Art critic Dave Hickey, famously skeptical about a lot of contemporary art, does his best to boost the exhibition in his catalogue essay (mostly with fiercely backhanded compliments, as when he praises its ignorance of all the current painting he actually likes ). But he can't help warning his readers that the dominant mode they'll witness in these portraits is what he calls "art-school bourgeois realism."

Two thoughts.

First, being realistic doesn't make a picture art, not by a very, very long shot. Realism's just a technical trick -- there are at least tens of thousands of people who can make a realistic painting or sculpture. Something, maybe, like the number of people who can do a decent root canal. Think of all the packaging and advertising imagery and special effects that rely on easily acquired realistic skills. If anything, high realism can distract from anything more properly "artistic" a portrait might be doing. It's likely to make a viewer think a painter puts technique and tradition ahead of anything else -- as so many realists do.

Second, if you're making a highly realistic painting, it had better be a whole lot better than some photograph that could show the same subject. The act of painting, that is, had better add a ton of value to the work. Otherwise, all that labor will seem a waste of time, except as an empty invocation of fancy, high-priced Old Master art.

David Lenz's
David Lenz's "Sam and the Perfect World" took top prize in the Outwin Boochever Portrait Competition.( - Courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery)
No melting watches, please.

For some reason (okay, so let's blame Salvador Dali) "modern" art has come to be equated in many people's minds with the wildly fantastical. When you take painters with traditional skills -- the kind, maybe, most likely to enter a competition at the non-art-gallery National Portrait Gallery -- then ask them to let their inner artist free, they almost always simply take tradition and throw in something from a freakish dream.

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