The slow-moving figures in Bill Viola’s Surrender express the visual signs of grief: their faces contort in grimaces of pain and sorrow, breaking into tears before gradually lowering their faces to the waterline at waist level. As small waves ripple out on the surface of the water, the reflections of their features become distorted, intensifying the drama of this contemporary devotional diptych. Like many of the artists featured in Portraying Power and Identity: A Global Perspective, Viola illuminates the range and complexity of human emotions, revealing intersections between contemporary portraiture and depictions of power—social, cultural, and political. Individual and group identity, and the forces that shape how we see self and other, are approached through direct references to noted works from art history, connecting past events to current issues. From Miguel Ángel Rojas’s photographs of a young, maimed Colombian soldier posing as Michelangelo’s David (1501-04 CE), to Ori Gersht’s restaging of Jean-Bapiste-Siméon Chardin’s 18th-century still-life as a video painting, to Marc Fromm’s transformation of a 15th-century portrait by Petrus Christus into a life-size sculpture, these artists quote from the canon of art history to examine the contemporary human condition. The works suggest a cyclical, rather than linear perspective on the most powerful of forces, the passage of time.
As one of the oldest art historical genres, portraiture has always been political: the faces of the wealthy and powerful are enshrined in art museums and textbooks. Responding to this history, Kehinde Wiley has dedicated his practice to creating monumental portraits of African-American men and women that mimic the poses and gestures of European and Old Master paintings, emphasizing the historical uses of portraits as affirmations of status. While historical in form, Wiley’s portraits are undeniably contemporary; his models wear their own clothing and accessories, asserting their present-day individuality. Large-scale, highly detailed, and dramatically lit, Pierre Gonnord creates evocative portraits of people from ethnically, economically, or socially marginalized communities, creating visions of unexpected beauty and dignity. Zanele Muholi’s photographs, Zukiswa Gaca, Mukhaza, Khayelitsha and Nomonde Mbusi, portray strong, unique identities as representatives of the LGBTQI community in South Africa. These portraits, part of Muholi’s ongoing series Faces and Phases, are part of her mission to “re-write black queer and trans visual history of South Africa, for the world to know our resistance and existence.” Nandipha Mntambo, also from South Africa, used a cast of her own body to create the three torsos that comprise Ode to the Silence, which echo in form and color the classical Winged Victory of Samothrace (200-190 BCE), transforming the Hellenistic figure of heroism into a contemporary vision of female strength, formed with cowhide rather than sculpted in stone.
As Ronald Vill’s poignant image of a Cuban last supper, La última [The Last], suggests, politics may engender privation; the ongoing economic sanctions and isolation of the island nation limits access to the most basic of needs. Across the globe, political power and its abuse begets civil strife and violence whose victims share a common humanity. The Spanish collective Democracia draws attention to the media’s embrace of the spectacle of police brutality by appropriating the visual language of advertising, superimposing images of riot police with excerpts from the writings of ex-military officer Luis Navarro. The artists assert that there are no passive observers: as one text reads “It’s Either Us or Chaos.” Armed with only flowers, a sweater, or a helmet, Anastasia Taylor-Lind’s photographs of Ukrainian men and women are both portraits and evidence of a political moment that claimed the lives of over one hundred protesters in early 2014: the individuals of the resistance look deeply and resolutely out at the viewer. Tragically, the experience of state-sponsored violence unites many people across the globe. Miguel Ángel Rojas’s video Caquetá and his series of photographs, David 5, 6, and 12, present victims of war, young men maimed by violence. Rojas considers his artwork a form of justice: by chronicling this moment in history, he illuminates the costs and casualties of drugs and violence in his native Colombia.
South African photographer Mikhael Subotzky’s Sunday Church Service, Beaufort West Prison transports viewers to a prison literally and figuratively in no-man’s land: Beaufort West Prison sits in the middle of the highway between Johannesburg and Cape Town; the lanes run on either side of the prison. The legacy of apartheid continues to impact the country, as reflected in the disproportionate incarceration of black men. This discrimination also exists in the United States, and is alluded to in the work of Titus Kaphar, an artist whose practice interrogates history, often drawing attention to historical and contemporary institutionalized racism. The Jerome Project (Asphalt and Chalk) XXV and Trayvon Martin, Tamir Rice, are both composite portraits of African-American men and boys who were either incarcerated or killed by police or vigilante violence. The layering causes a visual blurring; the contours and features of one person bleed into the next; multiple people become indistinguishable. This dizzying effect alludes to the high numbers of black men and youth who have been subject to a discriminatory, at times brutal, justice system. Kaphar’s decision to use chalk on asphalt bears another connotation: a body outline drawn on the street. The portraits of these men and boys record their histories, assert their presence, and draw parallels between the identities and experiences of those who inspired this body of Kaphar’s work.
For Anthony Goicolea, Christian Schoeler, Lynette Yiadom-Boakye, and Elena Dorfman, portraiture remains a platform for exploring the construction of identity, as well as the internal and external forces that shape and shift notions of self and other. Anthony Goicolea’s Portrait in Negative of a Boy with Harmonica as Madame Gautreau is based off an old photograph of himself and created in homage to John Singer Sargent’s infamous Portrait of Madame X (1884 CE). Though evocative of Sargent’s compositional style, Goicolea’s figure also resembles a photograph, as the figure is drawn in the negative, such that light areas appear dark and vice versa. The young man is fully clothed and presented in profile, giving few clues as to his identity. Christian Schoeler’s self-portrait and paintings of friends and acquaintances accentuate human vulnerability by capturing the essence of a person in moments of introspection. “It’s definitely not about representing a specific person through their individual properties,” he said. “I am interested in the surface of the model, in the faint, incorporeal mist which escapes from their bodies, in the film which envelops them.” Lynette Yiadom-Boakye’s figurative paintings are not portraits, but rather, what the artist terms “suggestions of people,” woven from memories, photographs, literature, and her impressions of passersby. A writer as well as a visual artist, Yiadom-Boakye creates her paintings in the course of single day, and gives them enigmatic titles, allowing the narrative to remain ambiguous and subjective. This interest in ambiguity is echoed in Elena Dorfman’s photographs of cosplayers; her photographs capture young adults and teens dressed as characters from video games, animated films, and Japanese graphic novels. Dorfman explains that, “cosplay has no boundaries, is unpredictable, open-ended. It includes both the fantastic and the mundane, the sexually abhorrent and innocent, female characters who become samurai warriors and brainy scientists, and male characters who magically change their sex.” These formally classical photos capture not only the gender ambiguity and sexual fluidity inherent in cosplay, but also the vulnerability and pride of teenagers and young adults incorporating fantasy into their reality.
Mortality and the fate of the planet is the defining theme of the centuries-old still life and vanitas traditions alluded to in works by Ori Gersht, Taylor Baldwin, and Marco Veronese. Gersht’s Falling Bird replicates the composition of Jean-Baptiste-Siméon Chardin’s A Mallard Drake Hanging on a Wall and a Seville Orange (1728-1730 CE). The sharpness and slow motion of the film at times approximates an oil painting, though when the action begins and the rope holding the bird aloft is cut, Gersht’s vision expands beyond the frame of art-historical precedence to address a host of contemporary issues. Born and raised in Israel, Gersht grew up acutely aware of the threat of violence; his deceptively alluring still life invokes destruction and loss. Baldwin’s The Interpreter pays homage to Stephen Crane’s 19th-century tale of men surviving a sinking ship, only to be left stranded on an abandoned beach, prey to the powerful, unpredictable forces of nature. Translated into a contemporary image of dread for the looming catastrophic effects of climate change, Baldwin’s sculpture visually recalls Théodore Géricault’s, The Raft of the Medusa (1818-19 CE), which depicts another shipwreck: the aftermath of the wreckage of a French naval ship off the coast of Africa, sent to colonize Senegal. The hapless survivors clung to their makeshift vessel as Baldwin’s skeletal figure does, searching for rescue, and for the chance to tell their tale—to interpret their experiences and offer a warning for the future. The human skull tattooed with a world map in Marco Veronese’s S.O.S. WORLD, suggests impending global peril and sounds the alarm for the future of the planet. A member of Cracking Art—creators of 21c’s hallmark penguins—Veronese is an environmental activist who makes art, both individually and collectively, that is intended to draw attention to the use of petroleum products and how the harvesting and use of resources affects all life forms, potentially requiring an emergency “S.O.S” call to save the world from environmental disaster. For Veronese, however, the skull is not just a symbol of warning or a reminder of mortality, but also a reflection of our common humanity: at the skeletal level, differences in gender, race, ethnicity, all disappear. A passionate devotee of Renaissance-era art and of the idea of renaissance (rebirth), Veronese’s works affirm the cycle of creation and destruction, and emphasize the interdependence of all life forms.
The traditional genres of art history are evolving and intersecting, addressing a wide range of subject matter. From the complexities of the formation of identity, to the political, social, and economic forces shaping the world today, contemporary art is fluid. Gabriel Lester’s kinetic installation, The Future Chasing Past the Present, presents a dreamlike narrative in motion powered by an industrial conveyor belt filled with a landscape of hand-carved foam buildings and small trees made from branches. The scenes slide before a series of bright lights projecting the moving shadows on the walls of the gallery, creating a shadow theater where land and cityscapes rise and fall, fall and rise. This scene turns again and again, infinitely passing in front of the bright lights just as planet Earth circles the sun. The progression of time is presented as a continuous narrative, denying distinctions between past, present, and future.
– Alice Gray Stites, Chief Curator