Lynette Yiadom-Boakye is a figurative portrait artist working in 2018. In a self-titled lithograph book of her work, the artist and other contributors explain why the above consignment—figurative portrait artist working in 2018—can feel problematic. According to cultural critic, Donatien Grau, once Duchamp started producing readymades, the end of figurative painting was nigh. “Many artists who used painting as their medium”, Grau writes, “had a choice between either remaining in the realm of painting and accepting the fact that painting had become conservative or to enter the never-ending parade of painting toward the death of painting” (29). “It is a rather heavy burden”, he continues, “for a contemporary artist to carry: being a painter, being a figurative painter, being seemingly a portraitist” (31). The essay goes on to explain how Ms. Yiadom-Boakye subverts this idea of painting-as-outdated by her use of “restraint” in both subject matter (mostly brown-skinned subjects) and technique (broad strokes and the completion of a painting within a workday).
In the first iteration of my Project Plan, I wanted only to paint people, many people, with a focus on representation and volume. The idea was to populate a gallery space with portraits of all types of people from neighbors to D-list celebrity drag queens and performance artists, lovers and strangers, friends and paid sitters. My hope was that the viewer would look at these portraits and wonder who these people are and also wonder at the interaction between sitter and artist by pondering the look in their eyes as they watched me and I painted them.
Working through the 2018 Berlin summer residency, with much of the focus around installation, assemblage, and performance art (with subtle hints within the curricula that painting was obsolete) made me realize that what Donatien Grau was saying was relevant to me and my work. Even with the concept of the project plan (an interest in race-representation and the sitting/sitter dynamic) I now feel that this is not enough to subvert the idea that the work I do simply saves me a spot in the pointless march toward the death of painting.
Still, figurative portraiture is what I do. I don’t want to lose that.
During the Berlin residency, I was given a list of artists to study. One was Yiadom-Boakye (whose work was featured in the Berlin Biennale—so much for the death of painting). Another was Deanna Lawson whose photograph-portraiture always includes the subjects’ environment. Lawson’s work appears to be taken in the home of the sitter and what struck me was that we were getting a lot more information about the sitter via what they were surrounded by (objects, colors, furniture, detritus).
I liked this.
Using more of the environment that surrounded my subjects was a good first step, I felt. But I also wanted to expand the experience of the portrait, the interest in sitter/artist relationship into something that went beyond the portrait itself and became more meta, that is to say, more about the experience of sitting, opening up, being looked at (from both ends) and the conversation that flows from being together in this simple but strained relationship of sitter and artist. In Berlin, often for lack of on-hand materials, many of my fellow student-artists used their camera phones, video recorders, and audio recorders to create a piece and this has inspired me to experiment with these features within (without?) my portrait making: to video tape the process of the sitting turning the finished portrait into an artifact of an experience rather than a piece in and of itself.
An amalgamation of these new inspirations (Lawson’s use of environment and Berlin-residency students’ use of recording technology) brings me to the second stage of my project plan.
The subject matter will remain: people. But in this next set of portraits, I will include significantly more of the subject’s environment in order to give the viewer more information as well as create movement for the eye within the work. Whereas previous portraits have been mostly done in my own home with the sitter traveling to my studio, these portraits will make me the visitor into their homes for a more intimate (invasive?) experience for sitter and viewer. The composition will reflect this shift by reducing the size of the subject on the canvas in order to incorporate as much of the background environment (or information) as the sitting calls for.
Additionally, instead of having the viewer ponder about the dynamic between sitter and artist, I will record the sessions and (technology permitting) add an experiential component to the sittings by providing the viewer with audio and visual clips of the dialogue between us that captures something poignant, or even banal—something telling—during the course of the sitting. It could be a diatribe, a dialogue, a single sentence, depending on the subject and the experience.
Returning to the opening, perhaps what I am attempting to do through this second iteration of my project plan is to go the opposite way of Yiadom-Boakye’s internal restraint and explode the idea of portraiture outward out of the canvas and into exploring the idea of looking, talking, being present with another person in a way that many of us no longer experience in the 21st century because of technology and social media outlets. The combination of a person surrounded by her things, her artifacts, and listening to her expound, relate, react, explain, question more clearly hits the original target of my desire for the viewer to want to know the people who are featured before them. It is more information in order to pique interest further or, in some cases, what stands before them may be enough information, leaving the viewer to exit the gallery having almost-actually met (not seen and wondered about) many different people