Portraits: Looking Out and Looking In

Artists often choose famous people for portraits. Helmut Newton, Andy Warhol would be the first of the twentieth century artists that come to mind. Newton chose important figures in the arts and theatre as well as fashion. Warhol chose socialites and celebrities. Others choose friends and family as models: James van der Zee, David Hockney, Lucian Freud, Beauford Delaney, Faith Ringgold, Irving Penn, Alice Neel and Elizabeth Peyton to name a few.

Other artists like to do Self-Portraits.  Gilbert and George photographed themselves for their main subject matter. In the twenty first century we have the contribution of the icamera and the popularity of SELFIES.  No wonder then that many contemporary artists are finding themselves a winning subject.  Many questions are posed from the physical to the psychological when considering a portrait.  Does the portrait  realistically represent the appearance of the sitter? Is beauty an important aspect of the portrait? Does the artist try to reveal the character of the sitter?  Is there intentional distortion to achieve a narrative the artist wants to present? In the self -portrait, can the artist truly “see” herself/himself simply by gazing into a mirror? These are probing questions for the artist and for the viewer.  

In her essay, ”Activism and The Shaping of Black Identities (1964-1988)” included in the book, The Image of the Black in Western Art, edited by David Bindman and Louis Gates Jr.,  Adrienne L. Childs writes that black artists in that time period had a “corrective mission: to dignify, to insert black artists and images into the canon of Western art and to uncover heroic narratives of African American pasts.”  Romare Bearden, Robert Colescott, Bob Thompson and Faith Ringgold stand out as artists who developed these bold ideas and entered the conversation in Contemporary Art.

For the artists shown in our selection, identity is a very important concept.   

Kamar Thomas paints over his own face with face paint. He examines the painted face from many angles through digital photography to create a new identity which he then paints on canvas.  The subject (Kamar, usually) looks at the viewer head on with intensity, bravado  and amusement.  There is a masking of the actual self offering the opportunity to create a new identity.  Francks F. Deceus  sits with head resting on his hand with a seriousness and questioning look as if to ask the viewer for a reaction.  In his “impression” of Quest from the band called The Roots, the hairdo—an exaggeration of the Afro—asserts the subject’s black identity.  In  Toussaint L’Ouverture, Deceus idealizes the important political leader of Haiti, Deceus’ country of origin. In Howardena Pindell's Self Portrait we see a young, very serious artist, very painterly and of someone who has become one of the most articulate black, women in art today. Renee Stout works in various media and is especially compelling as her own subject in whichever medium she chooses-print, photograph or painting. Her subject is the empowerment of the black woman.   A recognized gallerist of African-American Art, Merton Simpson encountered many famous people in all walks of life during his lifetime.  It is not surprising that his subjects of contemporary figures include Oprah Winfrey, Spike Lee,  Al Sharpton and some other historic heroes he did not get to meet, George Washington Carver and W.E.B. Dubois.  Simpson grapples only with facial expression, placement within the composition and figure/ground relationships to achieve the desired emotional effect.

Humans continually try to redefine themselves and find a comfortable place in society.  Artists—whether writers or visual artists—have the capability to help reveal our outer and inner selves with their sensitivity and perspicacity.

© Susan L. Halper Fine Art, Inc. 2020