In Depth

Respect Your Selfie: Why the Portrait Reigns Supreme, From Van Dyck to Ed Atkins

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Respect Your Selfie: Why the Portrait Reigns Supreme, From Van Dyck to Ed Atkins
Still from Ribbons (2014) by Ed Atkins. Image via Gavin Brown's Enterprise.

What does it mean to be a portrait artist today, when portraiture is more of a reflex than an art—a prerequisite for engaging with the world, via a carefully modulated stream of selfies and face-swaps? The current resurgence of the figure in contemporary art makes this question all the more pressing: faces and bodies are everywhere, but few of them qualify as conventional portraits.

Instead, we have allegorical figures (in Nicole Eisenman’s current shows at the New Museum and Anton Kern), composite figures who may be based on several individuals (as in the latest work by Barkley Hendricks), imagined figures (as in the paintings of Lynette Yiadom-Boakye), human-alien hybrids (in Jamian Juliano-Villani), meticulously fabricated robots based on pop-cultural sources (in Jordan Wolfson’s outing at David Zwirner), and an assortment of avatars (in the videos of Cao Fei, Casey Jane Ellison, and DIS, among many others). 

Three current shows in New York, taken together, tell us something about what has happened to the portrait and how it might continue to evolve under pressure from technology and our compulsion to self-present. The superb “Van Dyck: The Anatomy of Portraiture,” at the Frick Collection, surveyed the short but intense career of one of the most gifted portrait artists of all time. The Whitney Museum’s wide-angle collection show “Human Interest” reminds us that the democratization of portraiture started more than a century ago, and encourages us to think more broadly about what is or isn’t a portrait. Finally, Ed Atkins’s solo show of videos at the still-under-construction Gavin Brown space in Harlem puts forth a futuristic kind of portraiture that’s as raw as its setting, even if it’s ultra-sophisticated in its use of facial-recognition and motion-capture technologies. 

van dyckCardinal Guido Bentivoglio (1623) by Anthony Van Dyck Image via the Frick.

The portraits at the Frick varied widely in formality and speed of execution, ranging from quick and expressive drawings and oil sketches to full-length canvases made in Van Dyck’s capacity as court painter to Charles I. Works in the first category can look unnervingly contemporary, particularly the sensitive and precocious self-portraits that appeal, anachronistically, to our obsession with “authenticity.” In one of them, the then-teenaged painter peers at us over his shoulder, with a slight pout and perfectly mussed hair.

It may seem harder to relate, at first, to Van Dyck’s more prestigious full-length portraits, made during a stay in Genoa and later on as the principal painter to Charles I. These immense and opulent canvases borrow heavily from Rubens and Titian, as in a sumptuous red-dominated portrait of Cardinal Guido Bentivoglio. Yet there’s a conspiratorial aspect to these works, a mutual striving of a young, ambitious artist and a politically motivated sitter, that connects them to our own collector-driven art world. This makes you wonder: why don’t the influential patrons of today have a craving for portraits, of themselves or loved ones or even (as Frick and other Gilded Age collectors of artists such as Van Dyck and Gainsborough clearly did) of sufficiently high-status people in general?

marsden hartleyPainting, Number 5 (1914-1915) by Marsden Hartley. Image via the Whitney

As if to answer that question, the introduction to “Human Interest” at the Whitney reminds us: “Once a rarefied luxury good, portraits are now ubiquitous.” What follows, in the exhibition, are works by artists who have persevered in defiance of portrait fatigue, such as Alex Katz and Chuck Close, and some creative curating that asks us to think of 1970s Body Art, anonymous street photography, and certain still lifes as portraits.

The first section, for instance, is dedicated to the “portrait without a person”—exemplified by Marsden Hartley’s Painting, Number 5, memorializing a German soldier and love of the artist with an array of personal ephemera (epaulets from the subject’s uniform and a chessboard, in homage to his favorite pastime, among other objects and symbols). Not at the Whitney show, but there in spirit, is Robert Rauschenberg’s submission to a 1961 portrait show honoring the gallerist Iris Clert: a telegram that read, “This is a portrait of Iris Clert if I say so.” (That work is the inspiration for an upcoming show of “non-mimetic portraits” at the Bowdoin College Museum of Art, “This Is a Portrait If I Say So: Identity in American Art, 1912 to Today.”) 

Elsewhere, examples of what might be called non-consensual portraits—Walker Evans’s subway photographs, for instance, and works by Gary Simmons and Glenn Ligon that reference police lineups and mug shots—also open up the genre, and put a more sinister spin on the omnipresence and accessibility of portraiture. If, as Richard Avedon said, “a photographic portrait is a picture of someone who knows he’s being photographed and what he does with this knowledge is as much a part of the photograph as what he’s wearing or how he looks,” do photos of unaware subjects still qualify as portraits? 

ribbonsStill from Ribbons (2014) by Ed Atkins. Image via Gavin Brown's Enterprise.

The dystopian discussion continues at Gavin Brown in the videos of Ed Atkins, who works with CGI, facial-recognition, and motion-capture technologies so as to confuse the individual and the collective, not to mention the quick and the dead. His figures have a waxy, corpse-like quality that brings to mind the Victorian tradition of post-mortem portraiture, even in cases where the subject was never really “alive” in the first place. (As he told Modern Painters, he sees “the excesses of HD skins, images, as tipping the scales toward some deathly material image, deathly mortal image.”) His subjects also sing and recite cryptic monologues, nudging portraiture into the realm of performance—something he explored in his recent project Performance Capture at the Kitchen, which connected multiple life performers to a digitally projected avatar.

Atkins’s two-channel video projection Hisser, the first work at Gavin Brown, is based on a specific individual: a Florida man who died when a sinkhole opened up beneath his bed, engulfing him. That horror is digitally re-enacted in the piece, but Atkins also seems to be using it as a metaphor for the unstable physicality of new imaging technology.

In another work, Ribbons, a soused and menacing pubgoer identified as “Dave” seems to derive his identity, and vocabulary, from Internet trolls. He contains multitudes, at least until his head deflates. And in the show’s newest work, “Safe Conduct,” another male subject—a sort of self-portrait, or at least it has Atkins’s features—goes through airport security removing appendages and pulling off the skin on his face as easily if it were a pair of socks.

Familiar kinds of debasement are at play here—think van Gogh’s Self-Portrait With Bandaged Ear, or Francis Bacon’s ravaged faces, or anything self-referential by Martin Kippenberger—even if they’re made eerier by the unreality of the body, the possibility of instant regeneration, the paradox of choice that can go along with the limitless narrative possibilities of CGI.

These works aren’t portraits, exactly. But they seem to be holding on to the idea of portraiture, to be looking for ways it might survive not just the selfie but also newer methods of representation that undermine fundamentals of the genre: the “artist,” the “sitter,” and even the idea of a “likeness.”

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