Art Review: ‘The Outwin 2022: American Portraiture Today’ at the National Portrait Gallery

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The kind of person depicted in the National Portrait Gallery’s “The Outwin 2022: American Portraiture Today” is very different from the people typically represented in such settings. The subjects of the show’s 42 portraits aren’t rich, famous, or politically powerful, and they’re less likely to be white and male — or even have a name.

But just as precedent-defying is the way the people are portrayed. Unlike those portrayed for traditional portraiture, these subjects can be seen in reflection, or with their faces obscured or not visible at all. “The Outwin 2022” recognizes that the ways we think about identity today are more complex than in centuries past, when prominent aristocrats, politicians and financiers posed for oil paintings intended to convey dignity and status.

“The Outwin” is short for the Outwin Boochever Portrait Competition, which was founded by Virginia Outwin Boochever (1920-2005), a longtime teacher of the National Portrait Gallery. This year’s competition is the sixth in the triennial series, inaugurated in 2006 and curated by competition director Taína Caragol, curator of painting, sculpture and Latinx art and history, and Leslie Ureña, curator of photographs.

The top prize went to ‘Anthony Cuts Under the Williamsburg Bridge, Morning’ by Alison Elizabeth Taylor, which combines an intriguing subject with an unusual technique. The artist used a modified style of marquetry—an ancient decorative method of applying bits of veneer to a wood surface—to capture a pandemic depiction of an outdoor hair salon. Stylist Anthony Payne is seen from behind, with his masked face visible in the mirror he uses in his work. The ornate mirror frame contrasts with Payne’s casual attire and the graffiti-tagged cityscape.

Taylor is one of many artists who portray mirrored glances. So are Melissa Ann Pinney in her public bathroom photo “Portrait of Jael” and Paul Mpagi Sepuya in a nude self-portrait in which he is entwined with another unclothed man, with the artist’s face largely hidden behind his camera. Even more murky are the faces in Laura Karetzky’s “Toast,” a painting depicting people reflected and distorted by a chrome-clad toaster.

Other entries depict an individual’s idea more than his or her physical presence. A naked man looks away from the viewer in the painting ‘In Love With My Best Friend’, based on a composition of stories shared with artist Robert Schefman. In David Hilliard’s photographic triptych ‘Dad, at Manmade Pond’, the invisible title subject exists as cremains in a box-shaped urn in the foreground. TR Ericsson’s “Bride” is a wispy version of a wedding photo of his late mother, rendered in sepia nicotine stains. (Yes, she smoked.) Mother lives, but far away, in Cheryl Mukherji’s New York “Promise Me,” a video compiled from surveillance footage of her mother in India.

Mukherji isn’t alone in rejecting the single-image portrait at a time when video is almost ubiquitous. Lois Bielefeld offers a 20-minute documentary about her mother’s religious practices, based on the faith her daughter does not share. Rebecca Blandón documents Glen Eden Einbinder’s quest for places and things called ‘Glen Eden’, a quest that serves as a sort of conceptual autobiography. Holly Bass offers a condensed video of a performance piece in which she dances to a soundtrack of speeches and songs, mainly by black women.

Just as Bass in his performance encapsulates masses in a single figure, Narsiso Martinez’s drawing represents all farm workers with an image of just one: an anonymous masked worker, drawn and painted on a flat cardboard box used to transport cherries. Laotian refugee Pao Houa Her epitomizes the loss immigrants from that country feel in a photo of a lonely, unnamed man at a Hmong senior citizen center in Minnesota. Rigoberto Gonzalez mimics the style and composition of a 17th-century painting to depict an archetypal migrant family at the American border wall. Joel Daniel Phillips personifies black people written out of history with his meticulous drawing, based on a Depression photograph of an anonymous man whose likeness was made, but never distributed, by the federal Farm Security Administration. (The drawing is accompanied by a poem by Quraysh Ali Lansana.)

As Phillips’ piece underlines, photographic images are essential to recent portraiture, if only indirectly. Yet some of the photos abstract their subjects. Stuart Robertson’s self-portrait, made largely of collaged metal, is cropped to show only the lower half of his head, and Timothy Lee places a face of cut cloth on a torso printed with contrasting photographs of his South Korean childhood. Where traditional portraits testified to the arrival of their subjects, Lee’s suggests that identity is on the rise forever.

The Outwin 2022: American Portraits Today

National Portrait Gallery, Eighth and G Street NW.

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