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Sunday, March 3, 2013

Postmodern Portraits

Chuck Close Self-portrait, 2000
Portraits have been around almost as long as artists. Except, perhaps, during the Paleolithic era with its wild animals painted on the walls of caves, some form of human representation has permeated virtually every culture and art era since artists started painting using the stiffened tails of dead animals. Type into a search engine, any art era that comes to mind then add the word "portrait;" you'll see what I mean. With the passing of the era of Modern Art in the 1960s, and all the changes the Postmodern era has brought to the way artists think and work, there is no reason to believe the portrait should be immune to such pressures. Warhol kicked it off, his Pop portraits so iconic at this point in time as to demand no more than minimal mentioning. The Postmodern portraits of Chuck Close (top) fall into the same category, though, since he still lives, his work continues to evolve.

Russian collage artist Maxim Ksuta skips paint, preferring paste in producing portraits.
What separates a Postmodern portrait from those of the Modern era and all that went before? In large part the differences boil down to two factors, technology and thought processes (how the artist thinks). These two factors are, by no means limited to portraiture, but "people pictures" may be the best way of illustrating them inasmuch as the human face is a narrowing factor in art. Chief among the technical factors have been photography and the computer. Warhol's silkscreen portraits were all photo-generated. Chuck Close's mini-abstract squares would not be possible without photography. Tie the computer to the camera and then kick in the "outside the box" creative thinking of the typical Postmodern artist and portraiture demonstrates in a nutshell the impact postmodernism has had on what artists do today. It's not just a matter of acrylics over oils, photos over live models, computers over trial and error, but instead, revolution over evolution. It's the difference between a candle and an LED.

The Russian artist Maxim Ksuta's work (above, 2010) with giant photo collage portraits, though superficially similar Chuck Close, differs in that Ksuta eschews the use of paint, instead using tiny photos of famous works of art. Unlike Close, who toils laboriously for months over a single painting, Ksuta allows the computer to do all the tedious work while he simply "cuts and pastes" to his canvas as directed by his PC. That's Postmodern technology married to a new way of thinking about what an artist does and needn't do in producing art.

Chi Sono Self-portrait
Postmodern Portraiture Staggers
with Simultaneous Art, Nigel Tomm
If the artist happens to be a photographer, the results can be even more Postmodernly outrageous, as in the "cycloptic" self portrait of lens-master, Chi Sono (above, left). Nigel Tomm (above, right) takes the portrait photo and crumples it. In effect, he destroys it. Then making amends, he flattens it again, re-photographing the results. Notice how many Postmodern artists reject the needless, time- consuming step of painting their creations. One who didn't was Shepherd Fairey in his now famous portrait of Barack Obama, titled Hope dating from the President's 2008 campaign for office. Fairey was criticized (and sued) for using a copyrighted photo as the basis of his work. Nonetheless, art critics (albeit liberal ones) have recognized the painting as the Postmodern equivalent of the "Uncle Sam Wants YOU," poster illustration of the Modern ear nearly a hundred years ago.

It'll probably never adorn the walls of the White House, but Shepherd Fairey's much-
criticized and highly-praised political portrait is nothing if not Postmodern.
(Notice the bipartisan reds and blues which predominate.)
I know something about Postmodern portrait artists. I am one. My own effort along this line (bottom) involved technology, my pocket digital camera; digital print processing; and a reflective glass golden globe (not exactly new technology but not seen since the Renaissance in the art of portraiture). Most of all, however it reflects a Postmodern mode of thinking as to what a portrait should be. Naturally it depicts my physical appearance, though significantly distorted by my environmental contact with daily life (a garden ornament I pass by at least once a week). Likewise, the painting's very existence demonstrates the "outside the box" thinking I mentioned earlier, as well as how I work, how I think, and how I have fun doing both.

A Postmodern Self-portrait, 2011, Jim Lane

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