Earlier this spring, GDS art students trekked down to the National Portrait Gallery (NPG) to view the acclaimed exhibit “The Outwin: Portraiture Today”. The dynamic and poignant exhibit features the 2016 winners of a portraiture contest held by the NPG, which attracted a variety of submissions in the art of portrayal. Needless to say, the contest succeeded in pulling a collection of magnificent submissions by renowned, established visionaries and newer, more obscure artists alike. Above all, the judges of the contest sought work that took an innovative approach to the age-old tradition of portraiture, as well as diversity of subjects and media. Fifty works were chosen from thousands of submissions; the contest was open to any artist 18 years of age or older living in the United States. Consequently, a great range of artists created entries for the competition.
GDS students, myself included, were lucky enough to have a guided tour of the exhibit by Dorothy Moss, the Associate Curator of Painting and Sculpture at the NPG. Moss was the curator of the exhibit as well as one of seven judges for the 2016 contest. Upon arrival, Moss led us through several of the permanent collections of portraits such as “America’s Presidents” to get to the gallery space where the collection was on display. Interestingly, this brisk walk through the more traditional portrait exhibits put the Outwin Collection into perspective and made the experience that much more dazzling. Although the works in the permanent collections are historically important, technically impressive, and often depict celebrated American figures, collections like the Outwin are essential in expanding the notion of modern portraiture, as well as providing a space for diverse cultural perspectives, identity exploration, and a range of subjects.
Because Moss was a judge and a curator of the collection, she was able to tell us about the rich stories behind many of the pieces in the gallery, and she had special relationships with many of the artists. Leading us through the two rooms of art, it quickly became clear that every work, whether a drawing, a painting, or a sculpture, had a poignant story attached to it, and a sense of connection between the artist and the subject was evident in each piece. Subjects ranged from family members of the artist, a homeless man, immigrants making their way from Mexico to Texas, a bride-to-be, two transgender high school students, and even acclaimed artist David Hockney. “This is the second Outwin competition that I’ve directed, and I think that it’s so fascinating, since these exhibitions open every three years, that we end up seeing a snapshot of what’s happening in the nation [at the moment] through the work, but we also get to think through how portraiture is evolving” said Moss of this year’s exhibit. “With this year’s jury, they were really interested in the connection between the artist and the subject, and how the artist conveyed that emotional and psychological bond to the viewer, so that the viewer experiences that relationship and no longer sees that work of art as just an object. It’s a very intimate definition of portraiture.”
For the students on the tour, the art not only served as an expanding intellectual experience but also as inspiration for their own creative goals as young artists. Junior Emma Pretzer said, “I really enjoyed the exhibit because in a way it reflected what we’re doing in Advanced Art right now, such as the Identity Show and figure drawing, and also seemed very accessible since there was a GDS alumni as one of the winning artists.” Pretzer was referring to Cynthia Henebry, a renowned photographer who graduated from GDS in 1991 and was a winner of the Outwin Contest for her portrait titled Mavis in the Backseat. The photo was part of a larger collection of works by Henebry that focused on the chaos and internal lives of children. The photograph shows a young girl sitting in the backseat of the family station wagon, deep in thought. The striking composition and dramatic lighting in a seemingly ordinary scene of life made for an emotionally moving piece, and earned Henebry second place in the contest.
Moss had an interesting and promising response when asked about the Portrait Gallery’s efforts to expand diversity within their collections. “We actually just had a meeting with our team about how to portray those people who are more out of the canon of history, and how we’re going to address those absences” said Moss. “We are constantly thinking of ways to expand the narrative of history and include the stories of people that may have been lost in the telling of history and thinking about how portraiture can do that, and, more broadly, how art can serve as an intervention into a historical collection.”
This diverse and vivid collection of works will be on display at the National Portrait Gallery until January 2017. The exhibition is certainly worth a visit for those seeking an enlightening and emotionally moving art experience.