Less intentionally, “Just Below” serves as the emblematic piece of this show, the latest in a competition the museum has conducted every three years since 2006. Although “The Outwin 2019’s” subtitle is “American Portraiture Today,” the exhibition very nearly demolishes the traditional idea of portrait-making.
The selection includes far more photographs and videos than paintings and drawings, although some entries blur those categories. The top prize went to Hugo Crosthwaite for a series of black-and-white drawings, animated into a video, of Berenice Sarmiento Chavez. She is a young Mexican woman who ventured north across the border in search of the American Dream, but has since been deported. The artist encountered her in Tijuana.
As winner of the top prize, Crosthwaite will be commissioned to do an official portrait. The 2016 winner, Amy Sherald, made a painting of Michelle Obama that became one of the gallery’s most popular attractions. Most of the current show’s participants, however, demonstrate no interest in the famous.
In this array are just two images of celebrities, and neither luminary has the wattage of the former first lady. Tom Atwood offers a photograph of actor Alan Cumming, flexing his bare chest, and Nekisha Durrett constructs a dot-matrix-style rendering — made of various-size buttons of black polymer clay — of the late writer James Baldwin. (Two more notables are among the artists themselves: actress Kate Capshaw painted three large likenesses of homeless L.A. youth, while bluegrass and country-rock fiddler Richard Greene made a candid photograph of swaggering Louisiana teens.)
In a time of vast interest in movie, music and sports stars, to say nothing of YouTube and Instagram influencers, “The Outwin 2019’s” indifference to fame is either absurd or courageous. Instead of portraying celebs, artists were asked to respond to the political moment. This yielded many representations of blue-collar workers, immigrants and refugees, and people of color.
Garner isn’t the only artist to obscure the face, for millennia the crux of portraiture. Mexican American artist Natalia Garcia Clark keeps her back to the camera in her six-minute video, which observes her as she treads into a desert landscape until she’s lost to sight. In “Muerto Rico,” a photograph by Adal Maldonado (who works under the single name Adál), a submerged woman cloaks all but her eyes with a red scarf. Originally meant to symbolize Puerto Rico’s economic crisis, the portrait has come to represent the human costs of Hurricane Maria, according to the artist.
Such staged and collaborative pictures are characteristic of the show, which nevertheless includes some portraits that are more or less traditional. (Even those, however, depict people who probably wouldn’t have been considered worthy of a portrait gallery until quite recently.) Yet many of the show’s entries are examples of contemporary art’s concern with identity, autobiography and embodiment of sociopolitical issues.
This includes, most dramatically, a 13-hour performance piece in which a kneeling Sheldon Scott hulled grain after grain of rice. In the performance, which is preserved on video, the artist wears a dark suit and tie, identifying him as a contemporary resident of Washington, D.C. But he assumes the role of an enslaved man in the antebellum South, engaged in crushingly repetitive labor from dawn to dusk.
Scott’s performance is a portrait of sorts, but of a people, not a person. That’s an ambitious and evocative undertaking, even if some gallery goers would rather just see the face of someone they recognize.
The Outwin 2019: American Portraiture Today
National Portrait Gallery, Eighth and F streets NW. npg.si.edu.