Fifty-one finalists in, of all things, a national portrait competition, and they are exhibited in, of course, the National Portrait Gallery in Washington. What an idea: ask "artists throughout the United States to submit painted and sculpted likenesses of people close to them". 4000 artists responded, from among which the jury chose these 51.
Broad rule for me: art leaves me cold. So I still don't know what made me go out of my way to struggle through snow-hit downtown Washington last week to look at the results of the competition. Perhaps it was just that I was intrigued by the idea of seeing "likenesses of people", with the chance that some would be close to photographic. (I like photography). And I was oddly moved by these.
Not that they're particularly sad likenesses. But most of them, maybe even all of them, come across as ordinary people caught in their ordinary moments that are yours too. There's the Brenda Zlamany's man leaning back in his chair that, apart from his lean frame, could be me leaning back on any given day. Or Justin Hayward's Young Marriage: which couple has not felt the moments of quiet tension in their early years like this couple seems to be in the middle of? (Though what's that tortoise doing there?) Speaking of leaning back, Laura Karetzky actually has Veronica Lean Back, and how many times have you leant like that on the railing of a balcony?
And the lovely use of light in Catherine Prescott's Girl with a Mink Pelt stopped me in my tracks, and that's when I noticed her sturdy legs and the mink that looks much like a just killed ferret. Nuno de Campos won third prize for Magnet #3. He says: "My paintings acknowledge the impossibility of ever fully defining a person in an image", and maybe that's why I found myself speculating about the person peering into that freezer: age? sex? name? preferred sport? And somehow, Chris Campbell's Kekama Face to Face manages to leave me puzzling over something I wouldn't think I would be puzzling over: which of the two women there, if either, yearns to be like the other?
One perhaps trivial observation: in only one portrait do you actually see a smile -- Steve DeFrank's Mom and Dad, an interesting exercise technically by itself. Everyone else in these "likenesses" is unsmiling, neutral, sometimes even stern.
But then, as a Washington friend pointed out, if you're trying to capture someone's character, their moods, their daily lives, how much of all that time do they spend smiling?
Apart, that is, from when someone behind a camera yells at them: "Say Cheese! Smile!"
And that might be one difference between how you'd photograph ordinary people and how you'd paint them.