A quick read of Celia McGee’s 1995 “Portraiture Is Back” piece for the New York Times and Pernilla Holmes’s 2007 “In Your Face” article for ArtNews leaves an unwitting reader with the impression that portraiture had experienced a dramatic transformation over the course of a dozen years. McGee writes of a renewed interest in portraiture born of a recent focus on social issues like race, class, and gender, all inexorably leading to the deeply personal interface portraiture lends itself to between the artist, subject, and viewer. She provides only a handful of examples, but all of them grapple with gender, race, or personal identity, according to McGee. In stark contrast comes Holmes’s writing, which describes eleven bodies of work, most of which focus on people with whom neither the artist nor the viewer have any personal connection but through mass media: politicians, pop musicians, reality TV stars, athletes, and models. The work she describes does not make these figures any more accessible but rather heightens the concepts they represent: environmentalism, mass media, exploitation, and isolation. However, like the artists themselves, McGee and Holmes’s writings have more to do with their own frame of reference and subjective perspectives than a dramatic transformation in portraiture. The most notable flaw in the two articles is the lack of a comprehensive review of all types of media. McGee focuses on more traditional portraiture media like painting and sculpture, while Holmes seems to discuss everything but. Of course, these different focal points will lead to seemingly different types of “portraiture,” no matter when the articles were written.
Although McGee mentions many artists in her attempt to show that portraiture is “back,” she discusses only a few of them in detail, most of whom are painters and the rest are sculptors. Though she writes in the guise of an objective journalist, her selection of these types of artists is no mistake and reveals a romanticized notion of portraiture as an intimate process that only traditional media can truly capture. She notes, “Many artists believe that no mechanical means of reproduction should come between artist and subject in their intense connectedness.” Indeed, she is careful to explain that Chuck Close, best known for his photo-realistic paintings, has moved away from such stolid formalism to a more personalized, intimate approach to portraiture.
Holmes, on the other hand, cannot seem to get away from “mechanical means of reproduction.” Of the eleven bodies of work she covers, six of them work directly with photography or film, hardly the kind of mechanism-free nothing-between-you-and-me art-of-intimacy McGee envisioned. Of the remaining five, two actually work with photography as an integral part of their work—Nicolai’s “performance” piece really just being an elaborate staging for taking photographs and Herring’s sculptures comprised of collaged fragments of photographs—and one, Brian Alfred, does work inescapably entwined with technology as a device, since he bases his paintings off of pictures taken from the internet. Compared with McGee’s intimate “menage a trois…among artist, subject and viewer,” these mechanically-induced portraits are sure to seem more impersonal, detached, less imbued with the artist’s presence, and therefore more conceptual in nature.
While Chuck Close is the perfect example of how a painting can look like a photograph (and certainly the opposite can be true), different media, like different art forms, experience their own trajectories in art history. While some themes might move between music, visual arts, and writing simultaneously, they are also distinct art forms that evolve at their own pace. Similarly, photography, sculpture, painting, performance art, and movie-making are all very different approaches to the visual arts. This begs the question: what conclusions might have McGee drawn if she had looked at photography or performance art for her article? Similarly, what might have Holmes seen if she had included more than just one painter in hers? By the way, that painter, Brian Alfred, does small paintings of people he admires, including friends and family, in an attempt to portray his own identity. He exemplifies the kind of art McGee described in her article over ten years earlier and shows that, at least in the realm of portraiture painting, perhaps there has been no change at all.
Even within the media McGee and Holmes selectively review, a scan of 500 Self-Portraits suggests they are just cherry-picking examples to make their own points. Adrian Piper’s 1981 “Self-Portrait Exaggerating My Negroid Features” certainly seems to be striving for individuality in the context of race and ethnicity at least as much as McGee’s example—nearly 15 years later—of Dennis Kardon’s “Jewish noses” sculpture series. Chuck Close’s 1991 self-portrait, comprised of small amoeba-like shapes, seems far more a formal exercise and much less personal than his photo-realistic “Big Self Portrait” from 1967-8, suggesting the trend McGee described with him might actually have been happening in reverse, if at all. Cindy Sherman’s self-portrait is a photograph that “quotes” Ingres much in the same way that Holmes describes contemporary portraiture as doing nearly twenty years later. Similarly, Shirin Neshat’s “Seeking Martyrdom” from 1995 is as every bit as conceptual and “in your face” as Holmes’s repertoire of examples from a decade later.
From these examples, it seems impossible to conclude anything from a comparison of McGee and Holmes’s articles other than the fact that they, like the artists they write about, are creating their own stories from personal observations and subjective experience. If asked directly, they would likely define portraiture differently, know of vastly different types of artists, and therefore see completely different trends in the exact same period of time. Portraiture in 2007 may well have been very different from portraiture in 1995, but we would not know it from these two articles.