The Earnest Face of the Contemporary Portrait

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Nelson Shanks, Portrait of his Holiness John Paul II, 2002

By Rafael Francisco Salas

(Rafael Salas is an artist who teaches at Ripon College. His work was  shown at  Portrait Society in September 2009.)

This essay was originally presented at the CAA Conference in February 2009 in Los Angeles

Major exhibitions by Kehinde Wiley, Julie Heffernan, and Alexander Melamid have demanded a place for traditional techniques and portraiture in contemporary dialogue.

Sarah Howgate, curator at London’s National Portrait Gallery, states, “Portraiture is going through something of a renaissance, with a steadily developing conceptual line” (3)

The legacy of portraiture as a nerdy and conservative endeavor remains, however.

Daniel McNeill writes in his book “The Face: A Natural History”- “ In art, likeness has developed a reputation as rote and dreary business, face sapped of soul, the mark of the third rater.” (10)

This assertion has often pushed portrait painting to the conservative fringes of the art world.

Artistic humanists like Jacob Collins and Nelson Shanks are certainly given credit for their formal achievements, but their work does not contain the conceptual nature of other artistic projects, and are therefore not mentioned in the contemporary discussion of art.

A champion of traditional techniques, who coined the not-so-catchy term “New Old Master”, Donald Kuspit has reacted as many art viewers have to what Kuspit calls a “banalization of perception.” (7)

With this statement, Kuspit is saying that contemporary art practice forces an assumed avant gardism that prizes conceptualism and defies aesthetic integrity, purposefully distancing the viewer from the work. (7)

vincent-desiderio-lily-in-a-round-chair-2008Vincent Desiderio, Lily in a Round Chair, 2008, oil on canvas.

Many of Kuspit’s New Old Masters paint traditional portraiture, and have continually worked for recognition in contemporary critique, to varying degrees of success.  Eric Fischl, Paula Rego, and Vincent Desiderio are some of the names Kuspit mentions.  (7)

odd-nerdrum-self-portrait-head-on-tableOdd Nerdrum

Perhaps the most dramatic player of this discussion is Odd Nerdrum, who Kuspit champions, calling his work “perverse humanism”. (9) Nerdrum has worked for inclusion in the contemporary canon of art, but his work has been critically cast by Ken Johson of the New York Times as simply  a melancholy imitation of Rembrandt. (5) A student of Joseph Beuys, Nerdrum creates a world of reckoning, symbolically recreating moral elements in our society.   Critical response to his work is mixed, and often dismissive. (5) He currently shows at the Forum Gallery in Midtown Manhattan, a traditionally conservative figurative gallery, far from the skylights and lofts of Chelsea.

His example underscores the difficulty in painting traditionally in a contemporary setting; critics distrust old master techniques in the contemporary arena. Nerdrum’s dramatic response to his detractors was to write a manifesto and publish it in ARTnews, stating that he is no longer an artist, but a maker of kitsch, or anti-art, free to take his liberties where he may, outside of the critical eye. (2)

It is the challenge, then, of artists who work with portraiture not only to create successful work in formal terms, but to include a conceptual base in the work to engage in contemporary dialogue.

julie-heffernan-self-portrait-as-booty-2007-oil-on-canvas-68-x-65-inchesJulie Heffernan

The artists I choose to explore the issues of contemporary portraiture are Kehinde Wiley, Julie Heffernan, and revitalized up and comer Alexander Melamid.  All three have had major travelling exhibits in the last two years, and have gathered critical attention using traditional techniques and conventions of portraiture.   These artists use appropriation and historical quotation to create artwork that is nourishing both in the eyes of those seeking an aesthetic dialogue with art, the “well crafted, esthetically resonant image” as Kuspit states, (7) as well in conceptual terms.

It is exactly when portrait painting and its traditions seem outmoded and tired that a forceful new way of representing emerges.  The portraits of Kehinde Wiley, which I first saw in the Brooklyn Museum in 2003, are expansive in their scope and ambition because they succeed in the exact areas where other contemporary portraiture is seen as a rehash of anachronistic tradition.

Wiley recreates history by inserting African Americans into the canon of art history, and in doing so expands our knowledge of how race has been expressed in it. Paul D. Miller, also known as  D.J. Spooky states, “Wiley’s canvas surfaces are a mirror reflection of America’s unceasing search for new meanings from the ruins of the Old World of Europe and Africa.  In the process of reflection, the world that we see on his canvas transforms the way we think about old and new, race, masculinity, and above all, the generous soul of an artist’s ability to provide a way of saying simply: another world is possible.” (11)

kehinde-wileyKehinde Wiley

The paintings baldly appropriate portraiture from the past, and juxtapose this appropriation with embodiments of an American culture that is usually represented by images that inspire fear, danger, and anger.  The portraits are political, but contain humor and empathy at the same time.  Wiley appropriates images from old world Western realism, and recently from political posters, and juxtaposes them with ornamentation, pattern, and hip hop fashion, a process DJ Spooky describes as “Sample: Cut, Paste, Repeat.” (11)

Wiley’s initial artistic project was simple, and elegantly defiant.  He asked young African American males to model for him in his studio.  He then had them look through art history books and assume poses from historical portraiture.  He would then photograph them and paint their portraits as those icons of art history.  Black American youth replaced European princes and kings, and African Americans became retroactive subjects for iconic historical paintings. (11)

Since those early works, Wiley’s portraiture has expanded to include celebrities, models posed as figures in Communist Chinese propaganda posters, and work based on African sculpture.   In his most recent show at Deitch projects entitled “Down”, Wiley confronted issues of violence and oppression in African American male culture.  This then; the rewriting of history, a reconsideration of race, and the formal chops to do it in the form of these dazzling portraits.

Wiley’s paintings are exercises in dense color and ornamentation.  We see rococo swirls and fleur de lis flash and pop like abstract flames around the figures. Often they are patterns from African or Middle Eastern Ornamentation. (12) Wiley gives his sitters the decorative settings worthy of the halls of kings.  And though Wiley’s paintings are heavily devoted to the Old Masters in iconography, they also feel very contemporary because of how they are built.  Wiley uses photographic reference and digital manipulation that he does not try to diminish.  His paint handling is smooth and brushless, and the edges and surfaces around the figures are hard and unnatural.   This adds a formal level of complexity to the paintings, as his methods add another juxtaposition between art history and contemporary image making. The paintings ultimately transform into what Wiley calls a “Third Object” (12),  – neither historical nor contemporary, but a sample of both that becomes wholly new in Wiley’s paintings.

julie-heffernan-self-portrait-as-gorgeous-tumor-2004Julie Heffernan, Self Portrait as Booty, 2007, oil on canvas.

Julie Heffernan continues the dialogue between historical portraiture, appropriation, and contemporary painting.  Her work also creates Wiley’s Third Object by letting the viewer identify with the history of portrait painting in her work, but then be completely transformed by her self created, imaginary mythologies.

Julie Heffernan is in love with the legacy and craft of paint on canvas, but she also pushes the tradition of portraiture conceptually.  In paintings such as Self Portrait as Booty, she paints herself as the vehicle of an improvised mythology.  She reflects herself, her personal symbols, and the history of portrait painting by inserting herself into these works as creator and subject.

Heffernan calls Velazquez her “spiritual leader”. (13) I would go further and say that Heffernan works to inhabit that spirit.  At some level every portrait painter wants to be Velazquez.  So she paints her own wish fulfillment. She paints and repaints, and repaints again, Velazquez’s most famous subject, the Infanta Margarita. She assumes the guise of Velazquez behind his easel, quietly portraying the young Infanta as the ambitious master painter.

But Heffernan complicates this dynamic by also transforming herself into the subject.  She impersonates the Infanta in her work, and therefore becomes Velazquez’s subject as well as her own. She is the subject, object, and history of portrait painting all in one.  She stands as an adult and girl Infanta by turns, mimicking poses from Velazquez’s portraits of Margarita, daring the viewer to participate in or deny the masquerade.

To fully appreciate her paintings then, we must understand her relationship with this appropriation, both on the canvas and in front of the easel.  We see Heffernan as Velazquez, painting the Infanta.  We see Heffernan the Infanta, being painted by Velazquez.

julie-heffernan-self-portrait-as-booty-2007-oil-on-canvas-68-x-65-inchesJulie Heffernan, Self Portrait as Gorgeous Tumor, 2004

But yet, Heffernan is the maker here. And as the painter of the Infanta, Heffernan has the power to dress her up any way she sees fit. She takes full advantage, and gives us a neo-baroque world of dream imagery, full of wonder, decadence, and horror.  Heffernan the painter, dressed as Heffernan the Infanta, beguiles and tortures us with notions of identity, with the rotting flesh of a sexist art history. David Humphrey, in his essay “Fizzy Nimbus” describes the complexity of Julie Heffernan’s portrait project-

“Heffernan assumes more roles in the painting than is indicated by the simple “as” in her titles.  In addition to being the portrait subject and artist, she plays the commissioner of the portrait, the gardener, the architect, and the interior decorator, as well as the painter of the works hanging on the interior wall.” (4)

In addition to these roles, we see fruit, carcasses, explosions and sparkles as Heffernan adds complexity to her notions of portraiture, and stretches its’ definition still further. The objects and landscapes surrounding the figures also become embodiments and symbols of the self, an imagined inner world of the mind.  We see the “solitary imagination”(1) of Heffernan draped on her body, in the background, burning into the sky.  Ultimately, she leaves us breathless and full to bursting with the desire and longing one can feel for the act of painting itself.

It is with portraiture that Heffernan begins and ends her ambitious project.  Though she is in constant collusion with the monuments of art history, Julie Heffernan stakes out a gorgeous and complex corner of contemporary painting for herself.

Part of the success of both Heffernan’s and Wiley’s work is the flexibility in which the portraits can be experienced.  Donald Kuspit describes a combination of the “skillful execution repudiated by many modern artists”, with a contemporary knowledge of image making and appropriation that creates a “new humanistic art”. (8)

Though statements like this are often polarizing considering the pluralism of contemporary art practice, Kuspit does demonstrate how viewers respond to the work of the artists I have mentioned.  There is a connection to the mastery of execution in the work, a connection to the grand tradition of painting, and to the contemporary reflections the artists are discussing.  I would go further to state that the “humanism” Kuspit describes also stems from the representation of the face specifically. There is an earnest and archetypal connection made in viewing a portrait.  It forces a humane recognition between the face of the viewer and the face of the portrait.  It is this connection these artists create in their work, and where the viewer’s response begins.

komar-and-melamid-americas-most-wanted-oil-on-canvas-dishwasher-size-1994-97Komar and Melamid, America’s Most Wanted

This earnest approach to portraiture is also demonstrated in the continuing evolution of Russian artist Alexander Melamid.  Melamid and partner Vitaly Komar created dynamic and pointed conceptual art throughout their decades of collaboration.   “America’s Most Wanted” painting was an absurdist comment on what artists do to please a wide audience, or how a society functions using generalities like “The People”.  In their case, it produced an “average painting”, using a poll to make a composite of what people like to see in a work of art.  It was really ugly, and purposefully so.  In this work, the conceptual nature of the project required a strange and very unbeautiful painting in order to succeed.  (14)

Melamid has since broken his partnership with Komar and has expressed strong opinions about that earlier work.  He now says “I am repenting for my sins.  I am a born again artist.” He recounts finding a painting he did as a child that reminded him that “painting is a sacred and amazing thing.” (6)

Melamid’s most recent project displays his interest in regaining what is “sacred and amazing” about painting, and for this task he has chosen to paint portraits.    Through connections made by his son, famous hip hop artists agreed to sit for Melamid for portraits in the style of the Spanish masters in a recent exhibition entitled “Holy Hip Hop”! (6)

alexander-melamid-holy-hip-hop-group1-1Alexander Melamid, Holy Hip Hop group

Melamid’s portrait of Hip Hop icon Snoopp Dogg again uses an appropriation of the moods and atmospheres of traditional portraiture.  We can smell linseed oil even when looking at the painting from a computer screen.  Traditional iconography is updated with contemporary details of telephones, computer accessories and clothes.  The marriage of contemporary and traditional approaches combine to represent some of the most powerful and wealthy figures in the entertainment business, and so become perfect contemporary examples of the painted portrait as a symbol of power. The work elevates the subjects to iconic status like traditional portraiture, more so as the paintings are also formal albeit generic quotations from one of the golden ages of painting.  The paintings appear to lack the biting ironies that Melamid’s earlier work displayed.  He states, “Art was used in the 20th Century as a great divider.” (6)

alexander-melamid-snoop-dogg-2005Alexander melamid, Snoop Dogg, 2005

This seems to be an about face for an artist who has habitually commented on the absurd nature of artmaking.  The earnest approach of what Melamid calls “sacred” can be put up for scrutiny.  Though Melamid appears to be investigating the notion of Kuspit’s humanism, it may be difficult to read the work without considering Melamid’s past projects.  It might be hard not to look for red herrings in these paintings. Melamid wants us to recognize “vital feeling replac(ing) conceptual irony” (7) but viewers may yet reserve judgment, as they wait for a conceptual “gotcha” from the artist.

Carol Kino ends a recent New York Times article on the hip hop portraits by quoting Melamid as saying art has the power to unite people.  Her final comment – “He sounded as though he meant it.”  His future work will determine whether Melamid’s sarcastic wit returns to his art or not.

Portrait painting has had to reinvent itself since the end of modernism.  And though there are many contemporary painters working with portraiture, the vestige of modern abstraction remains, and portraiture continues to struggle with its conservative legacy.  The artists I have discussed today are continuing to reclaim, deconstruct, and reconstruct traditional portraiture into a part of our common, and current, culture.


1. Byatt, A.S., The Place of Solitary Imagination, from Julie Heffernan: Everything That

Rises, Published in association with P.P.O.W. Gallery, NYC, and Brodock Press, Utica, NY 2006.

2. Hansen, Jan Erik Ebbestad, Nerdrum, Odd, Tuv, Jan Ovc, Art and Kitsch, ARTnews,

April 2000.

3. Holmes, Pernilla, In Your Face, ARTnews, June 2007.

4. Humphrey, David, Fizzy Nimbus, from Julie Heffernan: Everything That Rises,

Published in association with P.P.O.W. Gallery, NYC, and Brodock Press, Utica, NY 2006.

5. Johnson, Ken, Art in Review, The New York Times, July 16, 1999.

6. Kino, Carol, Prelates and Rappers Strike a Pose, TheNew York Times, March 9,


7. Kuspit, Donald, The Decadence of Advanced Art and the Return of Tradition and Beauty: The New as Tower of Conceptual Babel: The 10th Decade, Chapter 10, Part 2, A Critical History of 20th – Century Art, serially published for Artnet Magazine,2006.

8. Kuspit, Donald, Vincent Desiderio, Reviews, Artforum, February 2009.

9. Kuspit, Donald, Odd Nerdrum, Perverse Humanist, 1998, essay from Odd Nerdrum: Storyteller and Self Revealer, Aschehoug and Co., 1998.

10. McNeill, Daniel, The Face: A Natural History, Little, Brown and Company,

1998, pg. 119.

11. Miller, Paul D., Painting By Numbers: Kehinde Wiley’s New World Portraiture,essay written to accompany the show “Kehinde Wiley, The World Stage: China,” at the John Michael Kohler Art Center, 2007,

12. Wiley, Kehinde, Infinity: Portraits in Black, Interview,,

13. Wood, Sura, Interview with Julie Heffernan, 2008,

14. Wypijewski, Joann (editor), Painting By Numbers: Komar and Melamid’s Scientific Guide To Art, Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1997.



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