Portraiture Rebounds and Refocuses

By Michel Ségard


Over the last few years, we have seen an increase and change in the direction of portraiture in U.S. contemporary art. It has been led largely by African Americans like Kehinde Wiley, Lorna Simpson, Hank Willis Thomas, and, more recently, Devan Shimoyama, Danny Ferrell and Alfred Conteh, to name the first half dozen that come to mind. In addition, there are artists who are not exclusively portraitists but whose style and content are compatible with this group of artists, such as Kerry James Marshall, Henry Taylor, and Meleko Mokgosi. Mostly members of the African-American, LGBTQI, or Latinx communities, many of these artists use their work to establish an equal and fully human status in our broader culture.

These artists have set a tone of portraying the soul of the sitters rather than just their social status and fame. This is dramatically manifested when one compares Simmie Lee Knox’s portrait of President Bill Clinton with Wiley’s portrait of President Obama.

Note that Clinton is portrayed with the trappings of his office and in a formal pose. This is a typical portrait of someone of status in a traditional style that goes back centuries. On the other hand, Obama’s portrait shows no signs of his status; the background is a collection of foliage and flowers and makes no reference to the presidency. He is not even wearing a tie, and his pose is definitely casual. The expressions on their faces are also clearly different. Clinton has a relaxed half-smile that suggests he may be hiding his true feelings. On the other hand, the wrinkles on Obama’s face reveal the stress of the job and the seriousness of his responsibilities. As this example illustrates, it is the change in what is being revealed that makes this resurgence in portraiture significant.

This change in the content of portraiture is not confined to African-American artists. Last year’s Whitney Biennial had three artists who presented portraits that stood out as fitting into this shift in focus: Curran Hatleberg’s Untitled (Mantis), Mae (three days after) by Elle Pérez, and Kyle Thurman’s entire Suggested Occupation series. Hatleberg portrays a working-class woman who probably has had one beer too many and who is about to light a cigarette. She is staring at a praying mantis that has landed on the hand of her drinking companion. The personal ravages of working-class struggles are revealed in her face. Pérez shows us a young woman who has recently undergone extreme physical trauma—she has a pair of black eyes and an ominous scar on her neck. We can only surmise what the circumstances of these injuries were. Thurman presents a series of seven “full body” portraits of ordinary men, four in pairs in undefined and mostly unhappy and possibly tragic circumstances. What the works of these artists from the 2019 Whitney Biennial have in common is that they portray ordinary people entrapped in the everyday tragedies of life.
























In Chicago, Riva Lehrer is noted for her portraits of people with physical deformities, bringing out their struggles and conquests of their disabilities. Her portraits are an embodiment of the humanity of the disabled. Robert Pioch is a watercolor artist who does strikingly empathic watercolor portraits of ordinary people. Also locally, Jesse Howard showed large portraits of African American subjects at Hofheimer Gallery in the Spring of 2019 that fit into this context. In a show of work by artists who have survived cancer at Chicago Art Department, a gallery in Pilsen, Eileen Powers showed a series of self-portraits called "Can You Make Hair for Me" where she demonstrated the tenacity and humor that got her through the loss of hair from chemotherapy. The portraits show her with hair made of different substances: ribbons, yarn, lettuce leaves, curly noodles, etc. Hers were not portraits of position or political power or social circumstances, but portraits of a determined will to survive both physically and mentally while maintaining a sense of humor. Also documenting the effects of surviving traumatic circumstances is the portrait series of armed services veterans from a variety of conflicts, started in 2003, by Canadian artist Catherine Jones.* The series depicts the pride and pain that shaped the demeanor of these men as a result of their service, no matter what side they were on, and it has received wide acclaim in Canada and Europe.


Historically, portraits of common folk rose to popularity with Impressionism. Much earlier, in the 17th century, Rembrandt van Rijn painted a number of honest, resonant portraits—but they were mostly of the wealthy merchant class or of himself. They showed the social position of the subjects, who were mostly the bourgeoisie, not the wealthy or nobility, and they were benign and decorative—with Renoir, sometimes even cloyingly sentimental. One could go all the way back to the 18th century and name Francisco Goya as the “originator” of portraits of ordinary people. His were not particularly psychologically “pleasing,” often bordering on cruel caricature.

It was during the period between the two world wars that portraits started to pay attention to the soul of their subjects and show suffering and not just their lowbrow social status. We have George Grosz, who railed indignantly against the hedonism and political corruption of the Weimar Republic. But he was obsessed with exposing a corrupt social and political system, and his work overflows with righteous indignation. Then there is Max Beckmann, whose self-portraits reveal his skepticism about the world, especially in the self-portraits of 1917 and 1937 (both in the collection of the Art Institute of Chicago). Perhaps the most famous portraits of the ’30s to come out of the U.S. are Grant Wood’s American Gothic and Dorothea Lange’s Migrant Mother. Wood portrayed an archetypal couple, a farmer and his daughter. Neither model who posed for the painting were farmers. The man was a dentist, and the woman was Wood’s sister. On the other hand, Lange’s model was an actual pea picker in California and the mother of seven children. Lange showed us the reality, not an exemplar.

After World War II, portraiture receded into the background as abstract expressionism took over. But there were a few notable examples from the post-war era. The two most famous are probably Francis Bacon and Lucian Freud. Bacon’s series of screaming popes, based on the 1650 portrait of Pope Innocent X by Velázquez, is an example of the change in attitude caused by World War II (and the dropping of the atom bomb). Lucian Freud did portraits that are very much in keeping with today’s approach of capturing the mental state of the sitter. It is particularly true in the very late painting Eli and David from 2006. A bare-chested man reclines in an armchair with his dog asleep in his lap. David’s face is subtly contorted with care and/or fatigue as his dog Eli sleeps peacefully unconcerned. This work suggests that Freud is a kind of link between mid-20th century portraiture and contemporary trends.

There is only one artist dealing with portraits in the 1960 and ’70s that most people think of—Andy Warhol. But Warhol was not depicting a person or their spirit, he was depicting a brand and commodification. In the 1980s, things began to change. Mapplethorpe emerged as a major portraitist. Like Warhol, he was obsessed by famous personalities, but unlike Warhol, he focused on their self-identity (their egos) rather than their brand. (Then again, there is the occasional hint of fan worship in some of his work, like his portrait of Warhol with a halo–like light behind his head.) Cindy Sherman, on the other hand, produced almost exclusively self-portraits in various feminine roles, exposing and disrupting the ways femininity is socially constructed. Her work leaves one thinking uncomfortably about female stereotypes in our society. One particularly disturbing image is Untitled Film Still #21 from 1978, in which she looks like a drag queen. The 1990s produced little new or innovative work in the area of portraiture. It was almost as if the art world was taking a break to figure out where to go next after neo-expressionism had played itself out.


















Since the turn of the century, however, a portrait style has emerged that is partially indebted to the style of Lucian Freud and that is perhaps best exemplified by the work of Jenny Saville and Andrew Salgado. Their work is characterized by strokes that creates prominent faceting, breaking up the face and leaving drips and splatters. This faceting and “deconstruction” of the face has become widely used, sometimes done with a palette knife that leaves a heavy impasto. Most of this work concentrates on capturing the personality of the sitter. It is less concerned with social position or power, although a number of artists are now using this style in the traditional way to address the issues of power and position regarding sexuality and racial and social bigotry.


The re-emergence of portraiture in contemporary art in the last decade or so has been led by African American, Latinx, and LGBTQI artists. They are the ones that find it necessary to define who they are and to establish their humanity and individuality—to come out from under the mantle of minority stereotyping. This has resulted in a fertile and varied body of portraiture that has refocused our attention on our own humanity and thereby enriched us all.


Michel Ségard is the Editor in Chief of the New Art Examiner and a former adjunct assistant professor at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. He is also the author of numerous exhibition catalog essays.


*Catherine Jones is a board member of the New Art Association, the publisher of the New Art Examiner.

Simmie Lee Knox, President William Jefferson Clinton, 2001, oil on canvas. The White House Collection, Washington, D.C.

Kehinde Wiley, President Barack Hussein Obama, 2018, oil on canvas, 84 1/8" x 57 7/8". National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution. © 2018 Kehinde Wiley.

Left: Curran Hatleberg, Untitled (Mantis), 2018, inkjet print. Collection of the artist. Image courtesy of Higher Pictures, New York. Photo courtesy of the Whitney Museum of American Art. Center: Elle Pérez, Mae (three days after), 2019, pigmented inkjet print, 50" x 33 3/8". Collection of the artist; courtesy 47 Canal, New York. Photo courtesy of the Whitney Museum of American Art. Right: Kyle Thurman, Suggested Occupation 30, 2019. Charcoal, gouache, ink, and pastel on seamless paper with wood frame, 75" x 48". Collection of the artist; courtesy CENTRAL FINE, Miami Beach. Photo courtesy of the Whitney Museum of American Art.


Riva Lehrer, Susan Nussbaum, 1998, acrylic on panel, 16" x 26". Courtesy of the artist.

Jesse Howard, Lady with a Red Ribbon, charcoal, acrylic paint. Courtesy of Hofheimer Gallery, Chicago.

Dorothea Lange, Migrant Mother, 1936, photograph. National Museum of American History—Smithsonian Institution

Left: Catherine Jones, Second World War Veteran, 2016, oil on linen, detail. Courtesy of the artist. Right: Robert Pioch, Aaron, 2017, watercolor. Courtesy of the artist.

Max Beckmann, Self-Portrait, 1937, oil on canvas, 75 3/4" x 35". Art Institute of Chicago, © 2018 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn.

Left: Francis Bacon, Study after Velázquez’s Portrait of Pope Innocent X, 1953, oil on canvas, 60" x 45 7/8". Private collection. Right: Lucian Freud, Eli and David, 2006, oil on canvas, 56" x 46". Courtesy of the Lucian Freud Archive.

Above: Cindy Sherman, Untitled #92, 1981, chromogenic color print, 24" x 48". The Eli and Edythe L. Broad Collection, courtesy of the artist and Metro Pictures. Right: Robert Mapplethorpe, Lisa Lyon, 1982, gelatin silver print, 19 1/8" x 15 1/16". The Los Angeles County Museum of Art. © Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation.

Above: Jenny Saville, Rosetta II, 2005–2006 Oil on watercolor paper, mounted on board, 98" x 72.8". Private collection. © Jenny Saville. Courtesy of the artist and Gagosian. Below: Andrew Salgado, Now & 4 Ever, 2013. Oil on soft (yarn, cotton, fabric), 74.8" x 90.6".



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