Portraiture has played an important role throughout the history of art in defining the political and social climate of the day. Contemporary portraiture however has become less representational and increasingly conceptual as it addresses the complexities of personal identity through themes such as childhood innocence, loss, gender, race, and social inequalities. This exhibition of over seventy artworks by thirty-seven artists demonstrates how a diverse group of international and regional artists explore these themes and struggle with similar challenges of what it means to be an individual.
Looking to history as a reference, several artists in the exhibition portray traditional imagery to critique contemporary social issues. Exploring African American identity, Kehinde Wiley has inserted a black male in street wear into the canon of Western European portraiture posing him as a prophet.
Artists today are also reinventing the genre of portraiture itself. The shattered glass spewing from the wooden structures of Chris Radtke’s self-portrait represents the artist’s exact body volume and the fragility of the human form. Germán Gómez has created self-portraits from photo-collages yet his own image is hardly visible.
Continuing in the downstairs Atrium Gallery, one can see how the portrait can reflect the artist’s reexamination of the innocence of youth and explore themes of loss and yearning. The subject of childhood varies from Jock Sturges’ idyllic depiction of youth to Ruud van Empel’s and Loretta Lux’s mysterious, unattainable innocence. This departure from innocence becomes even more pronounced in the work by Gaela Erwin and Miguel Ángel Rojas, where the subjects have encountered a very real form of loss or suffering.
The bombardment of media imagery, loosening of gender stereotypes, and reconsiderations of race are just a few examples of the pressures of contemporary society that challenge our identities. This exhibition demonstrates how artists today are using these challenges in their photography, sculpture, painting, video, and other art forms to redefine our ideas of representation. Art continues to be a barometer of our culture and the portrait shows us who we are and how we feel about who we are.