Amy Sherald, an artist from Baltimore, took the top prize, which includes $25,000 award and a commission to create a portrait for the gallery. Sherald’s “Miss Everything (Unsuppressed Deliverance)” shows a friend of the artist, and was inspired by memories of Sherald’s grandmother. It depicts a slender woman against a rich, blue background. The subject holds an oversize white tea cup, and looks directly at the viewer with clear eyes but no discernible expression. Her dress is divided down the center, with polka dots on one side and a plain dark fabric on the other. That division suggests a double reading of the figure, as both a servant (in a functional dress) and a woman of means. White gloves and a jaunty red hat complicate the reading, suspending it somewhere between livery and opulence.
Cynthia Henebry, a photographer, took second place for “Mavis in the Backseat,” a moody image of a young girl sitting pensively in a car, addressing the viewer with what may be irritation, or confusion, or indifference. Joel Daniel Phillips won third place for a detailed drawing of an African American man who is likely homeless or at least down on his luck. The meticulously realistic rendering is animated by an absolute lack of background information; the man sits in a blank white space, as if floating there. Four other artists were awarded commendations: Jess T. Duggan, Jessica Todd Harper, Sedrick Huckaby and Daniel James McInnis.
The winning and commended works are among the 43 portraits on display in an exhibition of the Outwin 2016 finalists at the gallery. In 2013, the winning work, a striking video portrait by Bo Gehring, was characteristic of a broader and more adventurous approach to artistic techniques and the definition of portraiture. This year’s work is very much about the presence of a definable person, rendered literally. Only one work — an oil painting of a woman’s naked torso by Clarity Haynes — doesn’t include a clear presentation of the subject’s face. Beyond that, only a few artists push the boundaries of the form, including Adrian Roman, who offered a sculptural box portrait (with mementos inside), and Naoko Wowsugi, a Japanese immigrant, who created multiple portraits of people who taught her particular English words (seditious, bureaucracy, symbiotic), which is probably best seen as a composite self-portrait.
So the emphasis has shifted from work that pursued multiple ways of exploring the relationship between artist and subject to work that concentrates primarily on the subjects themselves. Race, gender and sexuality are recurring themes, as are topical references to immigration, religion and poverty. “Lucy, 15 Years Old,” a photograph by Carolyn Sherer, presents a transgender girl appearing publicly in women’s clothes for the first time. “Deported,” a photograph by Louie Palu, shows a dejected woman who, the wall text says, will be forced out of the country the next day. Rigoberto A. Gonzalez’s “La Guia (The Guide)” uses traditional oil paint to capture a nocturnal border crossing, from Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, to El Paso, Texas.
These are all striking and powerful works. But in many cases, they come pre-loaded with the traditional sentimental power of their subject matter. There’s little meta-narrative, no probing at the complications of what it means to render the human subject in an age of a billion selfies.
In 2013, the award exhibition suggested that contemporary American portraiture essentially looked like American art broadly defined, a big, messy, exciting range of work with tangents in all directions. Historically, portraiture has always been a bit of a stepchild among the arts, attracting lesser artists (or so went the prejudice) who were primarily interested in money and fame. That was never a fair characterization, and it doesn’t apply to the artists on view in the current exhibition. But the rigorous focus on traditional portrait styles and techniques does limit the viewer’s understanding of the form, which can be every bit as freewheeling and experimental as any other kind of art.
The resulting exhibition presents an unfortunately narrow approach to the form that doesn’t fully honor the prize’s commitment to the “ever-evolving” genera. And it makes for a less interesting exhibition of finalists.
The Outwin 2016: American Portraiture Today opens March 12 at the National Portrait Gallery and is on view through Jan. 8, 2017.