You know these people. The working-class guy in the baseball cap with the grooved lines on his face looks like your uncle. The dark-eyed Latina woman was on the Metro with you during your commute home from work. You saw the freckled boy with slightly protruding ears at the grocery store. They’re the people you’ve grown up with. Or at least they could be.
The fifth installment of the Portraiture Now series at the National Portrait Gallery, which opened Friday, is as intensely personal for the audience as it is for the artists. The show explores the theme of community through contemporary portraiture. These pieces are nothing like the stiff, formal portraits of old.
The work of artists Jim Torok, Rose Frantzen and Rebecca Westcott has been organized to reflect their interpretations of community. The pieces are vividly alive, so that the subjects of each painting come across as vulnerable and accessible.
In the two rooms devoted to Torok’s work, the walls are lined with small portraits he created based largely on friends and fellow artists. There is also a self-portrait in which he is wearing a trucker hat bearing his name. This playful self-rendering reflects his sense of humor and desire to portray people in a casual state, according to Anne Collins Goodyear, curator of the Torok exhibit. Also on display is a series Torok painted of 21 members of a Colorado family. The collective work shows three generations of parents, siblings, cousins and adopted family members. This section raises fascinating questions of how to define likeness and what it means to be part of a community.
Frantzen also kept her subject matter close to home, painting the citizens of Maquoketa, Iowa, where she lives and works. Brandon Brame Fortune, who curated the Frantzen section, said the artist received funding from the Iowa Arts Council for the project. Frantzen set up a studio in an abandoned storefront on the main street in Maquoketa and announced that anyone who would like to have their portraits painted was welcome. One hundred eighty people took her up on the offer. The Portraiture Now exhibit is the first time all of these paintings are being shown together.
All three sections of the exhibit show a distinct style and point of view, but Westcott’s is the most radical. Westcott’s are full-length portraits with a uniquely urban flavor, reflecting the Philadelphia arts scene in which she worked.
Westcott’s models were often fellow young artists. Westcott died in 2004 when a driver swerved and struck her while she was changing a flat tire. It’s difficult not to feel a sense of sadness walking through the Westcott rooms, seeing her unique approach and obvious connection with her subjects and wondering what she might have done if her career had continued. Three portraits focus on a couple, Jo and Chris, who were painted on their wedding day, according to curator Frank Goodyear. In her portraits, Westcott added identifying symbols that were of some significance to whomever she was painting. In the portrait she did of her husband, Jim Houser, for instance, she included the number 76. This was symbolic of 1976, the year Westcott was born; 1776, which, as Frank Goodyear put it, “was an important year for Philadelphia—; and the Philadelphia 76ers, a nod to Houser’s love of basketball.
What is so moving about this show is the way it connects the artists, their subjects and the audience. Torok, Frantzen and Westcott had all used the word “democratic— to describe their work, saying they wanted to eliminate the idea that a person had to be part of a social hierarchy or have a certain status in order to be painted. Looking at elderly Veleta Guthrey from Maquoketa or Torok subject Trenton Doyle Hancock or Jo and Chris from Philadelphia, you want to know these people. Who is Veleta and how long has she lived in Maquoketa? Where does Trenton get his sense of style?
Adding another layer to the exhibit is an audio track that plays in the Frantzen rooms. She and her brother, John, a composer, invited the people she painted to talk about life in Maquoketa. Those interviews were then turned into an audio track.
The exhibit will be open through July 5.