Portraits for 2020
It takes a “master painter” to capture someone’s likeness—to render not just their appearance, but their entire energy; their personality; their demeanor. There is something intoxicating about how portraits can freeze a moment of pure humanity. But over the last century, many artists have aimed to tackle an arguably greater challenge: capturing and interrogating the experience of inhabiting a body. Artists such as Ana Mendieta, Carolee Schneemann, and Bruce Nauman, to name just a few, have used a wide range of media to grapple with and materially represent their own physicality in relation to space, people, and objects. Instead of likenesses, artists attempt to master the articulation of sensorial experiences of certain emotions and environments.
This ambition is especially prevalent among artists working today, at a time when we have thousands of portraits of ourselves and our loved ones—and strangers—at our fingertips at all times. In response to society’s compulsive documentation, vain over-sharing, and relentless interconnectivity, many artists explore how to truly, authentically capture personhood, be that by representing their own experiences, or challenging others to consider and meditate on theirs.
Numerous members of CCA’s graduating MFA class take these ideas to task their practices. In a way, they create portraits without ever asking a model to sit for them. Instead of likenesses, their works depict universal truths about living in the digital age. They ask us to see how our bodies relate to others; to nature; and to art history itself.
What does it mean to “master” the art of representing the human condition in 2020? These artists prod at, open up, and pick apart the concept of portraying the human condition using a wide range of narratives and media to investigate ways of representing or evoking personhood through imagery or material objects.
Jeff Enlow turns to the over-saturated repository of images available online to create composite portraits that might help us understand our own humanity through others. The availability of a broad spectrum of other peoples’ self-portraits allows Enlow to ascribe new meaning and relatable narratives to photos and videos that may have been uploaded by their creators for personal gain or to instruct others. For example, Ascension in Seven Parts (2020) is a collage of roughly fifty performers’ renditions of “Stairway to Heaven,” culled by Enlow from YouTube. The resulting video suggests a shared humanity between the performers, who have never met one another nor the artist, but were all compelled to use the same song to address an anonymous internet audience. Ascension in Seven Parts also alludes to the ways in which our likenesses can be eerily and easily repurposed without our knowledge in the digital age, forming an uncanny portrait of an unwitting community.
Popular culture and art history serve as inspirations for Christine Lyon, who reimagines the reclining female nude through her paintings. In Titanic 2: Electric Boogaloo (2020), Lyon paradoxically empowers her female subject, whom she often refers to as her doppelganger, by elevating her from eroticized object to thinking, feeling person, whose lethargy might be complicated by depression or anxiety. The figures in paintings such as Self Care (She’s a Red-Flag) (2020) are unperturbed by the idea that someone might see them emerging from the shower, unwilling to be othered despite their resistance to the common tropes of a portrait of a woman. In works such as Chlorine Bleach: A White Woman’s Pity Party (2019)—a painting on canvas transformed into a large pillow rather than stretched—Lyon simultaneously explores the limits of traditional techniques and materials and painting itself, further complicating the very act of creating a portrait.
Sarah Kanninen also channels an alternate persona to explore portraiture and the body by assuming the role of Gurggles the Clown. The proverbial sad joker is a paradoxical figure: we know that beneath the makeup is a person, and yet we only know how to fear, loathe, or laugh at her. Much like Alice traveling through the Looking Glass, Kanninen finds in Gurggles the humorous yet poignant polar opposite of the refined artist: a doppelganger who embodies and puts on full display the abjection we often reserve for the moments in which we are alone. Through works like Flesh and Blood (201-2020), which shows a deflated, flesh-colored balloon contorted and pinned down like an insect specimen, Kanninen posits that the life and work of this archetypal inhuman human, such as an unfunny balloon “animal,” can help us see and accept our own bodies as much at their abject “worst,” as defined by the same public that makes fun of the clown, as at their polished, presentable “best.”
Jillian Crochet uses her own body to create videos about the highly human sensation of touch, but in them, she encounters plants and rocks, rather than people. In so doing, she questions the antiquated belief in the superiority of vision over other bodily senses and asks how a work of art—especially a digital one—might represent or evoke the other senses. In It’s ok (2019), we see a hand reach out and gently stroke the fronds of an aloe plant repeatedly, periodically whispering a reassuring, “it’s okay.” Crochet thus creates a portrait of humanness that bears no resemblance to but functions like a painted figure—just as intimate and just as easily understood. Works such as Primordial Preservation (2019), which features an IV bag filled with living algae, go further to allude to the body as part of nature, asking us to expand our definition of humanness and to consider how media and other fictions have propagated our understanding of human superiority over, and relationship to, our natural environment.
Luis Casas takes as his portrait subject a specific environment in which the human body is central, especially in his own life: the gym. As a space where one works to achieve entirely personal goals whilst others gaze on, gyms create an atmosphere where private and public collide. This space is also often complicated by sexual energy—especially within San Francisco’s gay community, according to Casas. In sculptures like Meat Rack 1 (2019), Casas combines stark edges and sharp metal hooks with lusciously glazed, globular ceramics to lend material weight to and portray the internal monologue one might experience in this type of space—which one enters voluntarily, putting oneself at the mercy of onlookers. Through these works, Casas asks us to simultaneously empathize with the metaphorical body on display—the painfully pierced, vacillating ceramic bulges—while putting us in the position of the very voyeur who renders the body so objectified.
Jingbo Liang also creates portraits of our experiences in specific environments, using the medium of photography. In works like Untitled (2019), clothes lie on soft stone in the sun, arranged as if someone was wearing them just a moment ago, but their body has suddenly evaporated. One can imagine the warmth this person must have felt in the moments before disappearing, and yet it is nearly impossible to imagine what could have caused their disappearance. In works such as Symbiont II (2019), we see a figure nestled in what looks like a tropical rainforest—but they are nearly invisible, blending into their environment, with hair the same hue as the ferns surrounding them. Scanning quickly, a viewer might entirely miss that there is a figure in the photo. Liang’s work suggests we exist somewhere amidst this tension between obvious absence and imperceptible presence.
John Roy implies the body through paintings that posture as recognizable objects meant for holding, from paper bags to cases of Budweiser. As you examine a work like Take a Second (2019), following its titular instructions, you are implicated in transforming it from a two-dimensional representation into a three-dimensional thing. The longer you look, the more your eyes attempt to understand the deceptive, subtle shading on carefully cut canvases. These life-size illusions take “trompe l’oeil” to another level, as one wants to reach out and touch them, either to confirm their status as paintings, or to try to confer upon them the functions they imply, as with Untitled (2020), which resembles a crushed cardboard box. Roy’s works put on display our specifically human need to understand the world around us, and, perhaps menacingly, the ways in which we refuse to acknowledge the truth behind what our eyes tell us.
The materiality of Courtney Odell’s plaster sculptures makes it impossible to ignore the hands that formed them. Rough surfaces and unusual color combinations allow the jug-like vessels, such asProgeny(2020), to stand in defiance of the idea that ceramics of similar shapes could be mass-produced for a store that sells housewares, for example. Odell draws inspiration from farther back in art history than even the powdered wig-filled salon, looking to antiquity and cave paintings. Through her work, she channels the rough yet powerful approaches taken by artists thousands of years ago as they tried to immortalize their human experiences. Odell’s sculptures thus act like fossils of her decisions to apply layers and colors. Like Roy, the body’s presence in Odell’s work is subtle. Rather than attempt to deceive the viewer, her sculptures and paintings are self-aware, looking to the early history of making, while also looking ahead to expand the definitions of “masterful” painting or sculpture.
In reimagining how to depict the body through material, gesture, and non-figurative forms, these artists new explore ways to represent themselves and their communities, be they real or imagined. By foregrounding sensitivity, sensuality, and humor in their work, these artists posit an alternative definition of portrait mastery by offering up new ways of representing a more realistic and relatable humanity.