Outwin Boochever Competition breathes life into portraits

April 4, 2013

While the traditional notion of a “portrait” connotes the art of creating detailed personal representations, the National Portrait Gallery’s Outwin Boochever Portrait Competition takes the art of portraiture to entirely new levels. The exhibit transforms portraits into powerful works that communicate themes of personal identity, cultural differences, and the fleeting nature of beauty—qualities the average Facebook profile picture simply cannot capture.

The 48 works on display at the National Portrait Gallery were carefully selected from 3,000 submissions. While the competition rules required artists to submit a portrait focusing on the human form, artists were free to interpret the concept of portraiture however they pleased.

For example, many of the portraits on display did not include faces, and I was thoroughly surprised to see that many were created unconventionally, using video, time-based media, and even DNA-based images, in addition to the typical paintings, drawings, and photography.

I was particularly shocked to find that the first- and second-place winners of the competition were actual videos, because this notion of portraiture was so different from the stationary artwork that I had initially envisioned.

In fact, the first place portrait, entitled “Jessica Wickham” by Bo Gehring, is a five-minute video clip, in which a video camera hovers only a few inches away from Wickham as it captures every inch of her body, allowing us to explore and contemplate the personal expressions that she has chosen to present to the world.

The second-place portrait, entitled “Buffalo Milk Yogurt” by Jennifer Levonian is a six-minute animated short in which a man suffers a nervous breakdown in the middle of an upscale supermarket while a naked woman practices yoga in a pumpkin patch, which is supposed to “depict people’s longings for something beyond their everyday lives.”

My favorite piece of the exhibit, however, was one of the more traditional portraits, entitled “Aki” by Rieko Fujinami. The piece is a simple headshot in which the subject is staring off to the side with an expression of apparent discontent. The subject, Aki Narita, a popular Japanese underground artist who decided to choose the traditional Japanese lifestyle of marriage and domesticity while continuing to work. In the portrait, Fujinami brilliantly captures Narita’s struggle between pursuing her own art and consenting to the restrictive social norms of Japanese society.

There’s no art connoisseurship required to have a profound emotional response to pieces like Fujinami’s, which is what makes the exhibit such a must-see. Accessible and poignant, it reaches across the ambiguous divide that can often separate art from its viewer to reveal elements of humanity one might typically overlook.

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