THE WASHINGTON POST – There are a few recognisable names and faces among the nearly 50 portraits selected for the ‘Outwin 2019: American Portraiture Today’ exhibition. Actor Alan Cumming is depicted shirtless in a photograph by Tom Atwood, and author James Baldwin smiles at visitors in a pixilated image made with dark dots of clay on white ground by Nekisha Durrett. Both artists are finalists in the triennial competition held by the National Portrait Gallery, devoted to furthering the evolving art of portraiture.
In 2016, the Outwin was won by artist Amy Sherald, who was later chosen by Michelle Obama to make the former first lady’s official portrait.
But the competition, and the exhibition of works by the winners and other finalists, is mostly devoted to subjects who aren’t famous, who haven’t ascended the ranks of celebrity or political power or cultural renown. They are ordinary and often marginalised.
The title of last year’s winning work, by Hugo Crosthwaite, tells us the name of the person represented in the artist’s three-minute stop-motion animation of black-and-white drawings. It is A Portrait of Berenice Sarmiento Chávez, a young woman from Tijuana, Mexico, who is seeking a better life in the United States (US).
Her face emerges from a blank space, like a piece of paper or canvas, and then we watch as her body is sketched in, as though she’s materialised from nothing.
In a series of brief vignettes, we learn about the danger that she, like other migrants, has faced, including violence and harassment.
Between these animations, the screen is blotted out, sometimes with white paint or wash, sometimes with black, with the occasional skull appearing and disappearing in the dark voids.
This process represents one of the persistent themes of the exhibition: the erasure of people who are somehow threatening, or inconvenient, or merely insignificant by contemporary social standards.
This is an exhibition about dishwashers, steelworkers and soldiers, and everyday people captured at their ease even if they are sometimes the target of social opprobrium or abuse.
The Outwin has a solid track record, not just for identifying an emerging star such as Sherald but also for giving viewers a thorough and accurate cross section of the visual arts as practised presently.
The work runs from traditionally representative images, including paintings, drawings and photographs, to the conceptual, including this year a self-portrait titled Just Below by Anna Garner, who appears in a video dressed in red and banging with a heavy pole on the raised floor of a white box in which she is standing. We don’t see the artist’s face until the very end, when the floor collapses and leaves her hanging from a wall.
Like other artists in the show, Garner has found a novel way to represent the precariousness of existence, especially for those who are “faceless”.
Artists have been depicting the poor and marginal for centuries, sometimes as colourful figures inserted into social scenes for the amusement of well-to-do patrons and collectors.
In the late 19th and 20th centuries, photography was an essential tool for animating social justice, with artists documenting poverty and exploitation, the Dust Bowl and tenements in New York, factory work and the misery of military life. Some of these images are among the most famous ever made, including Dorothea Lange’s 1936 photograph of Florence Owens Thompson, an agricultural worker looking for a job in California.
But there is a marked difference between the social justice images of the 20th Century and the portraits on view at the Outwin exhibition. The latter refuse pity, and the subjects of the Outwin portraits stand on an equal footing with the viewer.
The transactional nature of photographs that document injustice – the subject performs fatigue, desperation or sadness and is paid for the work by the viewer’s empathy – isn’t part of the viewer’s engagement with portraits such as Crosthwaite’s video of Chávez. We aren’t necessary for her to exist, and while our concern for her might be a step to improving the world she lives in, her value and purpose aren’t predicated on our sympathy or assistance.
The work done by these contemporary portraits is more fundamental. They are about seeing other people, rather than saving them. We are challenged simply to accept their existence as part of our world, no lesser or greater in importance than our own existence, which is the first and most daunting ethical challenge faced by every human being. Several of the artists explicitly foreground the question of “seeing”, challenging the presumed ease with which we think we see other people.
In her six-minute, silent video Self-Portrait, Natalia García Clark asked, “How many steps will it take me to disappear from your perspective?” The video is conceptually simple but evocative. The artist walks away from the camera into a large, open landscape, becoming smaller and smaller and finally an illegible presence in the distance. The landscape suggests a desert, perhaps the one along this country’s southern border, where people hope the vastness will make them temporarily invisible while migrating to a new life.
In the late 19th Century, the photographer and social activist Jacob Riis photographed the urban poor of New York City, bringing a camera with a flash gun into the tenements and slum alleys of the most vulnerable of the urban poor. His record of How the Other Half Lives was a galvanising revelation to the middle and upper classes. But the people he photographed often looked surprised or wary, not only because his flash photography was disorienting but also because he was invading their space. In the early 20th Century, Lewis Hine photographed working children, grimy and exhausted, in mills and factories where they were paid a pittance.
They are allowed to address the camera with more of their dignity intact, but often betray annoyance or amused tolerance for the photographer’s presence.
The new generation of portraits seen at the Outwin exhibition allow their subjects to be at ease, in their own space, with the photographer and camera seeming to disappear. They are fully portraits rather than documentary evidence of a social or human condition. It may seem, given the dearth of famous names and faces, that these portraits are fundamentally different from the kind one sees in the America’s Presidents gallery, in that the subjects are sometimes anonymous, rarely famous and don’t project the aura of traditional power.
But there’s power aplenty in them – the power of people who resolve to be seen, to be accounted fully human and to be unquestionably present in a world that often seems to have no room for them.