When we think of art that is clearly a product and a reflection of its time and place, portraiture isn’t typically the first genre that comes to mind. The baggage of the genre is that as figurative art, portraits focus on the human form rather than the context to which our eyes are drawn for that sense of place.
In The Outwin 2016: American Portraiture Today, the portrait genre’s baggage is explored and exploded by portraits that are as clearly a product of present-day as any architectural or landscape piece could be.
And that’s very intentional. The 43 portraits on display - in mediums as varied as painting, sculpture, sketching, photography and mixed media - were selected by a jury from a field of 2,500 works submitted by “artists of all different styles; all different levels of prestige,” said Dorothy Moss, Director of the Outwin Boochever Portrait Competition. Since the competition takes place every three years, the submissions are required to have been created during the years following the previous competition, ensuring they are indeed a product of their day.
And this being a particularly divisive time in American history, the art unhesitatingly stares that division in the face, and captures it. “Most of this work does come from a place of social activism and social justice,” Moss understated. Kim Sajet, Director of the National Portrait Gallery added that the portraits "reflect discussions around gender, race, poverty, healthcare, at-risk youth, migration and the power of family."
Artist Joel Daniel Phillips’s charcoal and graphite piece titled Eugene #4 is economic disparity writ large. The portrait features a homeless man Phillips met near his studio at the corner of Sixth and Mission Streets in San Francisco. Even with contextual clues removed from the background, Eugene #4 is undoubtedly the product of a conversation the United States is struggling to have today.
Carolyn Sherer’s Lucy, 15 Years Old confronts gender identity and LGBTQ acceptance through the lens of a transgender teen appearing publicly in a dress for the first time. With a guarded posture that betrays her confident gaze, the background was intentionally left blank to avoid identifying the Birmingham, Alabama location of the shoot.
The politically polarizing topic of immigration also found a welcoming home in the Outwin. Rigoberto A. Gonzalez’s tense narrative La Guia (“The Guide”) combines his own border-town childhood and knowledge of 17th-century Italian painters to depict a teenage guide leading a couple across the Mexican-American border near Ciudad Juarez, Mexico.
Given the portrayals of struggle that make up much of the collection, it’s no coincidence that this marks the first time in its 12-year history the exhibition is traveling outside the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery, or that Tacoma Art Museum was chosen to host the inaugural tour stop and only stop on the West Coast. “These portraits tell stories that will resonate with our region," said Margaret Bullock, Curator of Collections and Special Exhibitions. "It brings a strong connection to stories TAM has shared through other recent exhibitions with themes around personal identity and social justice. These are concerns across the nation.” The museum also recently hosted the acclaimed 30 Americans exhibition showcasing the experience and work of prominent African American artists.
According to Moss, the director of the competition, the end goal was to “show the depth and range of human experiences through this exhibition.” In an era of change and uncertainty that’s felt across political, racial, religious and gender lines, The Outwin certainly does that.
The Outwin 2016: American Portraiture Today is on display at Tacoma Art Museum in Tacoma, Washington Feb. 4 - May 14, 2017.