Portraiture's Harsh Lessons
Contest Offers Unintended Primer On Do's & Don'ts

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.

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.

David Lenz, awarded $25,000 as the best of this show's lot, has painted up what seems to be a fisheye photo of a crew-cut little boy in front of a barbed-wire fence, then added in a giant, searing sun above him. Second-prize winner Yuqi Wang, who got $5,000, also gives us a dream's-eye photographic view, this one of him and his pretty, naked wife perched on a rooftop with the Manhattan skyline in the background.

What's more boring than listening to someone else's dream? Seeing it in art.

Warts-and-all is just skin deep.

The idea that there is something bold about showing ugliness in a portrait instead of beauty has a history at least five centuries old. Think Leonardo, Caravaggio, Rembrandt, Mary Cassatt and Lucien Freud. (Roman sculptors were also into warty faces.) By now, it's just another cliched way for portraitists to flag their "serious" intent. There are more old men's wrinkles in this show than you could shake a stick at. (If you happen to get kicks from shaking sticks at wrinkles.)

If it's ugly, make it hurt.

If a portrait wants to prove it's more than empty flattery, it had better go much further than just throwing in some wrinkles -- as Doug Auld does in a close-up of a burn victim named Shayla, whose black skin is a tight mask of scars. It's one of the only pictures in the exhibition that need their links to the grand tradition of painted portraiture: By making a monumental oil painting of a badly disfigured face, Auld evokes the absence of such faces from the art of the past -- and from the larger social consciousness that past represents.

On top of that, the simple freak-show voyeurism implicit in this painting is so vexed, it's compelling. Shayla seems proud to present her damaged self to us in a portrait; should we also be proud of staring at it?

A signature is just graffiti by another name.

Titian signed his pictures on their fronts. So did Rembrandt and Manet. That was back when marking the active presence of the artist meant something. Now a signature just seems like empty advertising. Some clear marking on a picture's back is all posterity -- and the market -- demands of any artist. A picture's front should be so great that a signature would only mar it. In this competition, however, artists' names are flourished everywhere. (It yields a new axiom we might call Outwin Boochever's Law: The duller the picture, the more flamboyantly it's likely to be signed.)

A child's toy can outdo oil paints.

An interesting, less staid option for portraiture, explored by New York artist Steve DeFrank: First, grab a vintage snapshot of your paunchy parents, nude (from circa 1972, judging by dad's groovy sideburns); then render the couple life-size in Lite-Brite -- the illuminated, brightly colored pegs that kids were playing with back when the shot was taken. DeFrank's plug-in picture, titled "Mom and Dad," gives some spark of inventiveness to one corner of the portrait exhibition. There's a hint of transgression in the idea that little Stevie has used his favorite Christmas gift to craft a nudie picture of his folks.

Save sentiment for greeting cards.

What's the difference between expressiveness and sentimentality? Maybe it's the ease with which the emotion is triggered and the triteness of the feelings involved. Some Hallmark moments in this show: young couples bravely facing up to meet life's challenges together; a little girl with a far-off gaze reclining on a windowsill; a woman in a half-lit empty house at dawn. Art teachers everywhere call these "girl-in-a-room pictures." They try to wean students off them by junior year.

Portrait art shouldn't have to be complacent art.

The most striking difference between this portrait competition and one of the country's big roundups of contemporary art isn't so much the look of the work or even its quality. It's the sense of adventure and consuming creative ambition that is missing from this show and that is there, at least as an overarching mission, in most serious contemporary work.

In many of these portraits there's a sense that it's enough just to look like a fine example of the kind of portraiture that's come before, and that has always earned some cash and pleased its clientele.

It's the attitude of a short-order cook -- even of a great short-order cook -- who aspires to making yet another fine fried egg but never thinks of recasting what breakfast could be.

The Outwin Boochever 2006 Portrait Competition Exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery, runs through Feb. 18.

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