“There are no Kardashians in our collection at this point,” exhibit curator Brandon Fortune says. “We focus in our collecting efforts on people who have made a significant contribution to our history and culture, and some of these people and many of the subjects included in ‘Eye Pop’ are also absolutely world-recognizable celebrities.”
Britney Spears and Katy Perry made the cut. There are also lesser-known luminaries, like molecular biologist Maxine Singer, who helped decipher the human genetic code and championed women and minorities in science.
“We also have portraits of important writers. There’s a photo of Sandra Cisneros by Al Rendon, and caricatures of Jhumpa Lahiri and Baltimore author Anne Tyler by David Levine,” she says. “This exhibit isn’t just like picking up People magazine. It’s more about challenging yourself to learn more about the contemporary world.”
Many of the portraits provide unusual views of famous faces, Fortune says. Celebrities these days are constantly photographed and have become expert image managers. That makes unguarded moments, such as the faraway look that painter Colin Davidson captures in Brad Pitt’s eyes, even more gripping, she says.
Across the hall, there’s a very different painting: an over-the-top portrait of Katy Perry that emphasizes the gulf between the viewer and the pop star. Painter Will Cotton depicts her wearing an oversized cupcake wrapper and crowned in lollypops. Her serious, level stare suggests that she knows she’s being viewed and is in control of her own image — and that construction may shield her true self from public scrutiny.
“Do we really know Katy Perry? I don’t think we do,” Fortune says.
Fortune hopes that visitors come away from the show with the realization that every portrait is a work of fiction, a creation that’s the joint work of the artist, the subject and the viewer. That goes double for the flattering photos we post on Facebook.
“Maybe after seeing this exhibit,” she says, “you’ll have new insight into your selfies.”
For “Pop Icon: Britney,” artist R. Luke DuBois created a moving collage using videos of the pop star and framed the screen in gold. Ethereal sounds, some of which were recorded in an old church in Italy, emanate from nearby speakers. “There is something about our devotion to celebrity that the artist is probably commenting on by comparing her to a religious icon,” Fortune says.
Sergey Brin and Larry Page
To make this portrait of Google founders Sergey Brin and Larry Page, Dubois collected videos of the two programmers from YouTube (which is owned by Google). As those play on one screen, a Google voice recognition program analyzes their speech and searches the Internet, in real time, to create a cloud of related words on another screen. “It’s a completely brilliant, unique portrait that only works for those two men because it’s about the search engine they created,” Fortune says.
This photo by Jesse Frohman is of Peter Dinklage, who struggled to find mainstream roles due to his dwarfism until a friend crafted a part specifically for him in the 2003 film “The Station Agent.” Dinklage has since won an Emmy and a Golden Globe for his portrayal of Tyrion Lannister in the HBO series “Game of Thrones.” With his frank and open gaze, Dinklage refuses to apologize for his condition and challenges viewers to accept him for who he is.
Jon R. Friedman is known for following his subjects around for a day or two, photographing them before sitting down to paint. In this portrait, he captures biologist Maxine Singer speaking passionately, perhaps about bioethics or one of her other favorite topics. “The painting has the sense of a snapshot, but it’s a moment that’s chosen with the deep knowledge that Jon gained by spending time with her,” Fortune says.
National Portrait Gallery, Eighth and F streets NW; Fri. through July 10, 2016, free.
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