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Questioning What is a Portrait -- in Chelsea

Many of the greatest artists are known for their portraits, including self portraits. Great art is always a portrait of an artist's vision.

A good portrait of a person always the deals with the essence of that person, a reality that waits beneath the likeness simply conveyed by a snapshot. Masters of portraiture and self portraiture include Rembrandt, Hals, David, Velasquez, van Gogh, etc.

My own logo-signature that I sign my work with is created by turning the letters of my name in Hebrew into a self portrait. It is the initial image of the works in my Essence series. However, it is another series that I am embarking upon featuring painted portraits using video, which has me contemplating the ramifications of portraiture.

The actual idea for this blog began when I entered the Jack Shainman Gallery and saw a wonderful, spiritual and even serene photographic exhibit, Faith by Jackie Nickerson. According to the press release, Nickerson was granted an “unprecedented access” to the churches, abbeys and convents of Ireland. These portraits are of a quiet commitment to faith more than to any theology, although in some of the photographs religious implements of tradition and ritual are visible. The muted tones heighten the peaceful lives focused on meaning. These portraits are reverential of the people whose simple lives have great wealth without any of society's glam and bling.

Before photography elegantly usurped an artist's traditional bread and butter: creating portraits of wealthy patrons that would grant them a kind of immortality (at least on the walls of their castles and stately homes for generations to come), portraits were a fairly accurate visual representation of their subjects. The Cubists wrecked havoc with that objective and in his way Andy Warhol followed their lead.

Of course Warhol is featured as an artist and a subject in a tour de force show of modern and contemporary portraits at the Luhring Augustine gallery. Jack Pierson's “EVIESANDS” takes the portrait one step further, simply spelling out the subjects' name with large letters of differing colors, sizes and fonts.

George Condo creates a splendid portrait of Queen Elizabeth, entitled, Right, Wrong, Sane and Insane. Before the gallery's show opened this work was visible in the window of Luhring Augustine, and I knew I wanted to write about it in this article. I returned to the city in part just to view this show and see this painting close up. Condo divides his canvas into quarters, depicting Her Royal Highness in the moods of the title, clockwise. So we see different aspects of personality, maybe even spiritual levels, poignantly and rip roarin' human, a brilliant portrait of a celebrity and historical figure that supercedes any political or social commentary. The Portraits show at Luhring Augustine holds many gems, with about a third of the work by artists represented by the gallery (including George Condo).

Isn't all great art a kind of a portrait of its artist's vision, hence a portrait of the artist him/herself?

Exogenous Axis
metal and wood
78 X 13 X 13 inches (198.12 X 33.02 X 33.02 cm)
Image courtesy of the artist and Luhring Augustine, New York

Another favorite at Luhring Augustine's Portraits, is a photograph by Louise Lawler of a wall that is hung with a self portrait silkscreen by Andy Warhol. Lawler entitles her work, Andy in L.A. Warhol the artist becomes art itself. Francesco Clemente's painted portrait of Tunga hangs alongside Tunga's enigmatically elegant sculpture, Exogenous Axis. Both the title and work are appropriately placed for inclusion in this show. Which depicts the artist Tunga, Clemente's vision or the artist's own work – or both?

Do portraits have to be of people?

At Nicole Klagsbrun, Elaine Reichek's Pattern Recognition, is primarily a show of embroidered portraits of other artist's paintings. Paintings depicted include works by modern and contemporary artists, including Andy Warhol, Rene Magritte, Damien Hirst, Kara Walker, and Henri Matisse. Although the exhibit is the first using a embroidery computer-programmed sewing machine, and all but two of the works were created this way, and those two works point the aspect of portraiture in all the works.

The first is of a detail of a Matisse painting. Next to it another work is an actual portrait of Matisse based on a black and white photo. This portrait is a find. It stitched this show into this blog article and my examination of recent portraiture.

As an artist, my personal focus is on the stroke. A stitch is a stroke. Reichek's are tiny, intimate and precise. In this exhibit many of them reference strokes from paintings, including Matisse who was also concerned with pattern and fabric.

The work, especially the Matisse portrait is also reminiscent of Georges Seurat's tiny Pointillist strokes.

Matisse with colors
Hotel Regina, Nice, c.1952 2007
embroidery on linen
21 x 19.5 inches

Image courtesy Nicole Klagsbrun Gallery, New York

I realized that the Impressionist and Pointillist works could be fairly accurately recreated with embroidered strokes, stroke for stroke. It makes one wonder if on some level their work was also influenced by the needlepoint and embroidery, especially since their narratives were often of their homes and women. Reichek's work completes this circle, her embroidery being equal to the paint.

Do portraits of people have to be of real people?

At Matthew Marks, I found Ugo Rondinone's Big Mid Sky and felt transported to a Smiley happy version of Easter Island, with a distinctly modern edge. The 12 free standing huge head sculptures all with big grins appear to be made of malleable clay; although they began as such they are made of cast aluminum hand painted to resemble clay. These are monstrous happy faces almost begging to be touched and altered. The installation, which presents them closely together makes their size even more intimidating, and yet the huge grins almost challenge the viewer to be afraid – or not. As representations of the months of the year, questions of time, of history and destiny are implied. Is our time, our months, friendly or intimidating?

Can a portrait be of more than one moment in time?

At the James Cohan Gallery, Folkert de Jong's Les Saltimbanques introduces a cast of characters, a portrait of a family of Harlequins in four scenes. De Jong divides his characters into four stop motion tableau vivants for their portrait. Since de Jong's work usually focuses upon political and social personages and themes, the absence here of recognizable historical figures seems indicate that like Picasso, the Harlequins represent an alter ego, and as a family, perhaps mankind. Us.

The Tower ‘Violin Player' (installation view), 2007
BASF Styrodur, Austrotherm, polyurethane foam, and liquid plastic
Dimensions variable
Copyright the artist
Image courtesy James Cohan Gallery, New York

The Tower ‘Violin Player' (detail view), 2007
BASF Styrodur, Austrotherm, polyurethane foam, and liquid plastic
Dimensions variable
Copyright the artist
Image courtesy James Cohan Gallery, New York


In the first scene, we meet the family; they are costumed, somewhat eager, yet also sad and weary, ready to perform. In the next two side-by-side scenes, they perform, creating two acrobatic feats, playing a soundless violin hopefully and amusing us, although their sad concentrating faces and the purposefully rough carved and painted sculptures inform us of their poverty and pathos.

In an impromptu, gracious and informative talk given by Jim Cohan to a group of students that I was privileged to witness, I learned that the barrels the troupe often performs upon do reference petroleum. In fact, the basic materials, Styrofoam and polyurethane foam that are used to create the statues are mainly petroleum based. So in scene two when we see them perform what, seems to be a sad ”House of Cards,” it is indeed a reference to big oil and the industrialized world's dependence and the probable impending results.

Jim Cohan informed us and it is in the press release that the works Harlequin characters were inspired by characters from Picasso's Rose Period, which in turn (at least for me) reference Rouault's work.

In the final scene the show is over. While still in their costumes the family tries to warm itself around a fire. Any semblance of they smile, but the smiles seem to me the gins of escape, not genuine joy. There is little real communication between the members. Depicting the Harlequin family in their backstage domestic poverty, de Jong‘s portrait fully hits home.

Must the subject of the portrait actually be seen in the work?

Currently according to Wikipedia, portraits are of a person, focusing upon the face. The work of Yishai Jusidman at Yvon Lambert informs us otherwise in a show of paintings entitled, The Economist Shuffle. The artist creates a portrait of a basically unseen group: economists. Their portrait is based on images of their results. Underscoring that the paintings as a group are all part of a larger portrait each painting is titled Economist Shuffle then followed by a number. Images of rescue workers, fire, war, terrorism, protests along side excess and indulgence inform the view of this portrait's subject. One of my favorite parts of the portrait show is Economist Shuffle #5. This is a sideways close up painting of a middle age man, wearing a patterned short sleeved button-down shirt that reveals only the area from just below his waist to his shoulder, which includes his protruding belly budge.

Can a portrait be of a career?

At Peter Blum, the exhibition Chris Marker: Staring Back is an exhibition of almost 200 photographs taken over the course of six decades by the enigmatic and influential French filmmaker. In Marker's words, “I stare” and “They stare”, so quite evidently the subject is often creating a personal vision of the artist who is creating a photographic portrait of them.

This show is also a self-portrait of a career, or a life of travel and adventure and engagement is modern and contemporary events. Although Marker eludes his camera, its steady one-eye reveals his life and travels and interests. The commentary, written by Marker beneath the photographs, which are assembled according to their subjects, underscores his life and view, enhancing this self-portrait. This show was organized by Bill Horrigan at the Wexner Center for the Arts.

Can a portrait be of an emotion?

The last stop my two day contemporary portrait discovery tour was Sikkema Jenkins & Co. I wanted to end with the memory of Kara Walker's work dancing behind my eyes all the way back home to Southampton. Every sensuous snip of Mss Walker's scissors, (her strokes) is filled with pain, sauciness, anger and despite of that all, a kind of busy joie de vivre. She is an artist whose work grabs me, for a moment I hold my breath and stare in awe.

According to the press release, the solo show features work from the new series Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen and Abandoned Lands- Records, "Miscellaneous Papers" National Archives M809 Roll 23, named after the historical records of the "Freedmen's Bureau" that document, among other things, atrocities against freed blacks during Reconstruction. The titles of the works are derived from these documents also.

Walker's work deals with victimization, and although her imagery is of American African American slavery and its vicious aftermath, her topic is always about victimization. As such she also explores the relations between men and women, focusing on the role of the victim as well as that of the victimizer. Her silhouette portraits are alive with gesture, poignantly seen only as cut-outs as these people are seen two dimensional through the eyes of injustice and prejudice. In some works even though they are of paper, they seem to splash over backdrops of collages, the heroes and heroines are only victims whose triumph is that they survive.

Bureau of Refugees: Between Danville + Somerville, 2007
Cut paper on paper
19 x 24.875 inches<
Image courtesy Sikkema Jenkins & Co,, New York

Bureau of Refugees: A black man who saw him do it, 2007
Cut gold paper
3.125 x 2.625 inches
Image courtesy Sikkema Jenkins & Co, New York

These are portraits of people, but also pain, anger, the horror of abuse and atrocities, but ultimately for Ms. Walker, they become works triumphant.

So what is a contemporary portrait?

In the hands of the artists mentioned here: wonderful.

With much thanks to all the galleries mentioned for their assistance.

November 7, 2008



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