‘Portrait’ seems to be quite an obvious term at face value (…see what we did there). In the Western world, we have generally regarded the portrait to be a visual description of a particular person; articulating their literal appearance. Resultantly, we often view portraits that reject or subvert the actual image of someone, as a modern phenomena; an exception to a well established rule of mimetic copying. However, this is a misplaced assumption. Since the so-called ‘dawn of portraiture’ – emerging with the European Renaissance – artists have explored many different symbolic, literal, manipulative, and expressive methods of rendering the human form. This surely results from the fact that our experience of each other, as humans, is rarely simplistic and one dimensional. Rather, we perceive each other and ourselves, in multidimensional ways. As a result, portraiture is certainly not a homogeneous genre of art. This is by no means the first time we’ve discussed this in our blogs; we at Art Pistol are fascinated by the different renderings of humanity, in contemporary art – and we intend to keep on sharing that with you!
It isn’t often that we may think about portraiture solely expressing the inside of a person, rather than how they appear on the outside. Jim McElvaney typifies this sort of introspective portraiture in his Untitled Head. He has loosely sketched a white outline of an anonymous head and neck, onto a smooth, black surface. Keeping largely within the borders of that head, he layers mixed-media pockets of texture and line – some thick impasto, some hardly coating the black surface below. The soft, cloudy base layer subsumes the flat, black surface and creates a three-dimensional effect, as if we are peering into the internal space of the head itself. The paint is then layered on top, in denser patches, which gives the internal space a ‘galactic’ aesthetic. Thus, the internal world of this head is represented as a cosmic world – intangible, but floating with abstract colours and forms. At the close of the nineteenth century – in an artistic and literary movement known as Symbolism – abstract colours and forms were used to symbolise emotion and the subconscious mind. This was inspired by the ‘psychologie nouvelle’ theories of Charcot and Bernheim; who believed that “the external world was a torrential flow of stimuli”, which would be “accepted by the brain”, merge, and then released as “an image”. Artists, such as the Symbolists, would then document these images, often in abstraction. They defined this process as “objectif[ing] the subjective” or “externali[zing] the inner vision”. McElvaney seemingly does the very same thing. He articulates that “subjective”, “inner” world of the mind, through an abstraction of colours and forms. Accordingly, there is only one place, in this work, that this mass of abstraction rests in the form of a recognisable human feature – the eyes. A thick black curve of charcoal defines these closed eyes with apparent naturalism; which posits the eyes as a sort of ‘nucleus’ of the face – the centre-point that holds the portrait together. In Symbolist thought, closing ones’ eyes allegedly opened up the aforementioned “inner vision”. Likewise, this is a portrait where the eyes close, and the mind subsequently opens. It is an introspective portrait, not a literal portrait of the external appearance. Well… that’s what we think, anyway.
It feels almost paradoxical to accept that a work in which the person depicted is near unrecognisable – internally or externally – as themselves, can indeed still be a portrait.
Georgina Vinsun fundamentally challenges the popular misconception that portraiture is simply copied from life in a overt and literal way. The title of Wendy asserts that this individual is specific – she isn’t ‘abstract depiction of a woman’ – she is ‘Wendy’. Rather than mimetically copying Wendy’s obvious features, Vinsun focuses on capturing something else about her… Perhaps, like McElvaney, she renders something of Wendy’s internal psyche, in an abstract form. Or maybe, instead, she communicates the physical movement of the sitter, in one particular moment in time. Regardless, the portrait expresses Wendy as a dynamic surge of blue, which – despite its abstraction – carries the weight and undulation of the human form. The white background suspends the form in time and space; making the focus of the work entirely on the flow and shaping of the blue. Wendy’s abstraction makes us think about a text called The Death of the Author. In the 1960s, Roland Barthes wrote an essay of this title, where he posited that, when we imagine the “death” of the creator’s original meaning for a work, we can begin to witness the “birth” of the reader. In other words, sometimes it can be useful to stop attempting to work out what the artists themselves are trying to convey; and instead, we can look at a work, and be open to what we think about it. In this case, what impression of Wendy do we get, when looking at this rush of blue? Do we regard the affect of the form itself? Do we feel the colour, or the movement – or lack thereof? The beauty of such abstract portraiture is that – regardless of their calculated effect – they provide space for a sensory experience of the person depicted. They have the ability to get under our skin, and affect us, in a way that mimetic portraiture so often fails to do.
It is difficult to know how portraiture could be more overtly subverted than in Megan Williams’ Blullini. To state the obvious, the sitter is seemingly facing the wrong way round… Or is she? The title of the work suggests that this is, in fact, a portrait of hair – not of the anonymous sitter we instinctively assume is the primary focus. This is not the sort of portrait the Western canon is used to. What is so beautifully unique about this portrait, is – despite its subversive take on the genre – it draws upon many central tenets of Renaissance portraiture. For example, the hair is minutely rendered in startling detail; with a luminescent quality that captures each individual hair in magnifying realism. The stark yellow background, amplifies the clarity even further, by juxtaposing such a pristine block of colour with the intricacy of the hair. Such an interest in capturing intricate textures and surface quality is reminiscent of Northern Renaissance portraiture. Furthermore, the central focus – the hair – sits at the apex of the portrait, as was conventional in the Italian Renaissance tradition. Rectilinear lines – articulated through the t-shirt design – draw the eye vertically toward the hair; wisps of hair, and the plait, then seamlessly drag the eye further up the work. It is a compositional tactic that further monumentalises the hair. It is entirely the ‘sitter’ or primary focus of the portrait.
So, as always, we hope you’ve enjoyed this little insight into a handful of our artists, who have focused on communicating humanity through their work. We love the unique and wonderful – seeing work that defies the canon; articulating new ideas, rethinking ancient ones, and just generally expressing what it is to be and experience humanity. Thank you for reading, and we hope to see you soon at Art Pistol Gallery.