A new kind of portraiture: Springfield exhibit showcases artwork from a National Portrait Gallery competition

  • An image from the animated stop-motion drawing “A Portrait of Berenice Sarmiento Chávez” by Hugo Crosthwaite. Springfield Museums

  • “Jesu Sera, Dishwasher,” photo by Sam Comen. One of the themes for the newest Outwin competition is immigrant workers and their quest to build a better life in the U.S. Springfield Museums

  • “80 Days,” paper, acrylic paint, graphite and pastel on canvas by Deborah Roberts. It’s a portrait of an African American teen who in 1944 was put to death by the electric chair when he was just 14. Springfield Museums

  • “James Baldwin,” a portrait of the famous writer by Nekisha Durrett that’s made out of hundreds and hundreds of small pieces of clay. Springfield Museums

  • “Josephine/Rest Haven Hotel,” pencil and charcoal drawing by Joel Daniel Phillips of a woman who lives in an old converted motel in Oklahoma. Image courtesy Springfield Museums

  • “Secrets,” photo by Lauren Hale. A “commended” entry in the new Outwin Portraiture competition. Springfield Museums

  • “Legacy,” oil on dibond painting by Wayne McIntosh. This small-scale painting won a third-place tie in the Outwin competition. Springfield Museums

  • “Chance and Gus Forging Spurs,” photo by Carl Corey. Exhibit notes say the image offers the illusion of the romanticism of photos from the Old West while highlighting the difficulty of ranching life today. Springfield Museums

Staff Writer
Published: 10/8/2020 4:20:51 PM

Think “portrait” and the first image that likely comes to mind is an oil painting, or maybe a black and white photograph, a formal image of someone facing the artist or camera, in a serious pose — unsmiling.

The Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery (NPG) in Washington, D.C., certainly has its share of serious portraits, from profiles of the U.S. presidents to other landmark figures in the nation’s history. But in the past two decades in particular, the gallery has been expanding the definition of portraiture, in part through a national competition and now a traveling exhibit — and the latest version of that show has now arrived in the Valley.

“The Outwin 2019: American Portraiture Today,” which just opened at the D’Amour Museum of Fine Arts in Springfield, offers nearly 50 works of art that have been selected from over 2,600 entries from artists living and working in the U.S. and Puerto Rico. Every three years since 2006, artists have entered this competition, which is hosted by the NPG and judged by a changing panel of experts. The exhibit, named after the late Virginia Outwin Boochever, a former docent and benefactor of the NPG, was specifically designed to seek out new expressions in portraiture.

The Springfield exhibit easily meets that goal: painting, photography, sculpture, video, animation and drawing are all on display. The artworks also offer snapshots of the social and political currents of American life today, as artists were asked to consider issues such as immigration, income inequality and workers’ rights, racial violence, LGBT rights and environmental problems.

The overall winner of the competition, for instance, is a stop-motion animated drawing of the plight of a woman from Mexico as she tries to improve her life by coming to America. Another entry is a photo of a dishwasher in a Los Angeles restaurant, while an additional photo depicts a weary-looking man operating a forklift in an Ohio factory at 1 a.m., where according to accompanying text, the workers are under constant surveillance to assess their efficiency.

“80 Days,” meantime, a mixed-media piece of paper, paint, pastel and graphite on canvas, depicts George Stinney Jr., a 14-year-old African American boy who was executed by electric chair in South Carolina in 1944 for the alleged murder of two white girls. Stinney was the youngest person executed in the U.S. since 1786, and his conviction was overturned in 2014 when it was ruled he had not received a fair trial.

At an Oct. 5 press conference, officials with Springfield Museums and the NPG said they were impressed with the breadth of the artwork and the way the artists in this latest round of the Outwin competition had addressed important social issues in the country today.

“We are thrilled and honored to serve as the first venue for this exciting exhibition,” said Heather Haskell, the vice president and director of art museums at Springfield Museums. (Outwin exhibits first began touring the U.S. in 2016.) “The range of media on display here is really exciting.”

And Taína Caragol, the NPG’s curator, said via video conference from Washington that a highlight for her of this latest exhibition is its “expansive definition of portraiture … it’s traditionally been a conservative genre designed to enforce the power of people that already have it.”

“Here we have artists really thinking about (portraiture) in very inventive ways, to express new ideas, to portray people who traditionally have been at the margins,” added Caragol.

Topical subjects

“A Portrait of Berenice Sarmiento Chávez,” the animated drawing that won first place in the new Outwin competition, is a case in point. San Diego artist Hugo Crosthwaite, originally from Tijuana, Mexico, explained via video conference that he’s long used public sketches of people as starting material for more detailed charcoal and pencil drawings. For one of his more recent series of drawings, he interviewed people living or passing through Tijuana.

Berenice Sarmiento Chávez, a young woman he met during these sessions, became the focus of his animated piece after she related to Crosthwaite what he called “this incredible story about her crossing the border into the United States, getting into trouble, and at some pointing getting deported, but how she still dreams of returning to the United States.”

Crosthwaite’s piece, which includes some chugging acoustic guitar and raspy singing as backdrop, has a number of unsettling images. One shows four women and a child in a desert-like setting; the faces of all but one woman are then replaced by skulls before the image is washed out. The next sequence shows a young woman working as a waitress; she’s flanked by two leering men who turn into giant dollar signs.

Crosthwaite, the first Latinx artist to win the top Outwin award, said his animation contains elements of truth and fantasy and also “speaks to the violence against women that is prevalent” along the border. He noted that he took over 1,200 photographs of his evolving drawings to create his video, which runs about three minutes.

On a brighter note, the photo “Monroe, LA,” which won a tie for third place in the competition, portrays several African American teens hanging out on a city street, with a teenage girl in the foreground of the picture offering “a playfully defiant head-tilt,” as exhibit notes put it: “she asserts her presence with a joyful fearlessness.” It’s an image full of energy and spirit.

A more ironic statement can be found in “Muerto Rico,” a photo by a Puerto Rican/New York artist known as ADÁL, in which a person is seen submerged in a bathtub, face mostly covered by a scarf so that only one eye is visible, and wearing a shirt that says Muerto (“Dead”) Rico. The picture is part of a series called “Puerto Ricans Underwater/Los Ahogados (The Drowned)” that was originally designed to reflect the economic problems Puerto Ricans face; the series was expanded, the artist says, to mark the death and destruction caused by Hurricane Maria in 2017.

Other exhibit highlights include “Chance and Gus Forging Spurs,” a photo of a tired-looking father and young son on a western ranch; “Josephine/Rest Haven Hotel,” a drawing of an elderly white woman who lives in a converted motel in Oklahoma along fabled Route 66 (it has the flinty quality of a Depression-era Dorothea Lange photo); and a portrait of James Baldwin fashioned from small pieces of clay that needs to be viewed from a distance to be legible.

Caragol, the National Portrait Gallery curator, said she’s been encouraged by “the creativity of artists across the nation” and their untraditional approach to portraiture. “I think that’s something that will continue.”

“The Outwin 2019: American Portraiture Today” will be on exhibit at the D’Amour Museum of Fine Arts at Springfield Museums through April 4, 2021. “This is Us: Regional Portraiture Today,” a smaller show that will be partly virtual, opens Oct. 24 to showcase portraiture by Connecticut River Valley artists. More information on the exhibits is available at springfieldmuseums.org.

Steve Pfarrer can be reached at spfarrer@gazettenet.com.

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