Each year I look forward to the National Portrait Gallery’s Annual exhibition of the winners of the Outwin Boochever Award. Named for the dedicated docent who endowed this competition, the award encourages contemporary American portraiture. Entries include self-portraits, likenesses of relatives, friends or strangers— the only caveat is that the artist must have had direct contact with the person shown in the work. This year, out of 3,000 entries, 48 works in a wide variety of media were selected by the expert jury.
The portentous strains of Arvo Part’s “Cantus in Memory of Benjamin Britten,” sets a somber, but tender tone for the entire exhibition. The music accompanies Bo Gehring’s first prize winner. Projected on a large wall, this HD video (2010) was made by mounting an industrial camera just inches above the subject. Timed to coincide with the length of the piece of music, the camera slowly travels up the length of her body to reveal the subject (Jessica Wickham, a woodworker from Beacon, NY), in a mesmerizing sweep. The intimate glimpse we have of this woman, so ordinary in her well-worn clothes, with her banged-up fingernail, her tousled hair, is a monumental revelation. http://vimeo.com/62003620
The rapt face and lush torso of “General’s Daughter” (2011) looks edible, a gorgeous chocolate confection in her green swimming cap and pink bathing suit top. Made of oil on resin, she has just emerged, like Venus, from the pool, the water glistening on her skin, her eyes closed in rapture. The artist, Carole Feuerman, says she sought to capture that “special moment when [her friend’s daughter] . . . changed from a young girl” to a young woman.
In “Life Raft,” (2011) a self-portrait, we see Katie O’Hagan painting the raft under her as she looks over her shoulder at some looming threat. Her emerging raft (some of the structure is still not finished) floats precariously on steely waters that merge at the horizon with a roiling sky. In the accompanying notes, O’Hagan says this piece represents “a period of great upheaval in her life,” but one that resulted into a positive plunge into creating more “personal” paintings.
A commended photograph, “For Delia,” made in 2010 by Heidi Fancher, is a powerful reimagining of a
likeness of a slave photographed by Joseph Zealy in 1850 in South Carolina, attempting to show, in some pseudo-scientific manner, that Africans were inferior to Europeans. Here, the artist reestablishes Delia’s “beauty and humanity.” Her head and torso appear to emerge out of darkness, a swamp, perhaps. With her haunted eyes, and beautifully shaped head, her body appears to be coated in wax, like a ceremonial object to be worshipped.
Standing in the middle of the gallery is “100 Pounds of Rice,” by Saeri Kiritani. Made in 2010 of rice, Elmer’s glue, and wood and metal sticks, this charming sculptural self-portrait was made when the artist thought, “I am mostly made of rice!” She stands, rising modestly out of a mound of rice, holding out her cupped hands as if to receive more, or offer us some, her eyes wonderfully alive, as if appealing to us to look and understand.
Perhaps my favorite entry is “Buffalo Milk Yogurt,” Jennifer Livonian’s 2010 digital video animation. Watercolor cutouts come alive to portray Corey Fogel, an artist and musician living in Los Angeles. Both hilarious and moving, the piece follows Corey as he, depressed, moves through his day to wind up suffering a breakdown in the Bread and Circus organic supermarket after witnessing a nude woman practicing yoga in front of a display of “Lunch Lady Gourds.” Corey’s amiable music accompanies this beguiling piece.
Take a look: http://newsdesk.si.edu/mobile/photos?id=5647
The show will be up until February 23, 2014. If you go, I know you’ll come away touched by each of the 48 extraordinary people you’ll meet here.