Inside two gallery spaces at Tacoma Art Museum (TAM), “The Outwin 2016: American Portraiture Today” art exhibition brings together the talent of artists from all over the country. The show is best viewed with an open mind as to what the genre of portraiture is and can be. In traditional fine art, a portrait depicts the head and shoulders, half-length or full body of a single subject with the face as the focal point. Artists in the show meet this criterion and take it a step further. They expand those boundaries to include sound, multiple subjects and even dimensions. The art also addresses racism, immigration and identity.
The contemporary works are winners of a triennial contest by The Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C. This is the first time the show has traveled and TAM is the only West Coast stop. Out of 2,500 entries, the jury selected 43 works as the finalists. Three artists took home top honors with several others commended.
Redmond native Joel Daniel Phillips placed third with “Eugene #4,” a charcoal and graphite on paper drawing. Eugene is seated against a blank background. The vivid depiction floods every detail from the bottom of his sneakers to the curl in his hair. Even his eyes meet your gaze and hold it. It appears as if Eugene is about to move forward.
“I normally shoot them, photograph them standing up because someone seated in a public space has a particular connotation. But with the case of Eugene there was this really wonderful moment,” Phillips said. “I was actually walking on the other side of the street and I saw him. I’d met him before and I ran across the street in the middle of traffic and was like ‘I have to photograph you right now, don’t move.’ He was very amenable to it.”
“Eugene #4” is part of a series called “No Regrets in Life.” Phillips encountered all of his subjects at the intersection of Sixth and Mission streets in San Francisco, an area he called home for two and a half years. About half of his subjects are homeless. Eugene is living in subsidized housing. Phillips described Eugene as having a dignity about him despite his circumstances. Because Phillips draws people on the fringes of society he purposely takes them out of the context they are normally seen in.
“My goal is to change the way people interact with people they see on the street,” Phillips said. “The work is meant to fill that gap and bring attention to people who are social black matter.”
The top prize of the show went to Amy Sherald’s “Miss Everything (Unsuppressed Deliverance).” It’s a whimsical oil on canvas depiction of a Black woman holding an oversized teacup. Rather than showing the subject with mahogany skin, she has a grey tone. She’s wearing a radiant red hat and a polka- dot dress. TAM Public Relations and Communications Manager Julianna Verboort described how the artist created a unique textured background.
“She painted a layer of red and then she painted a layer of blue on something — not this painting, but something else,” Verboort said. “She didn’t like how it was going so she put some turpentine on it to try and work with the paint and then she noticed it made this cool bubbling effect so she started using that technique for a lot of the backgrounds in her work.”
In a video playing for visitors, Sherald said it took an hour for her subject to relax and strike the right pose for the piece.
“I really want people to be able to write their own story,” Sherald said. “Who do you think this person is? Why do you think she put that on this morning? I want to lay the image there and let it be and see how it develops as people interact with it.”
Ohio State University researchers used computers to map 21 distinct emotional expressions of the human face. Visitors will find many of them in the works in the show.
In Claudia Bicen’s pencil drawn portrait of Jenny Miller, the audience meets a woman suffering from terminal cancer. Without reading the label, you can feel the weight of her life in the layered glassine paper piece jutting from its frame. Bicen wrote hundreds of words and phrases into the texture of Miller’s shirt, reflecting her personal experiences, which include living in an orphanage. Alongside the work is an audio component where you can listen to Miller talk about her life.
An awkward and hopeful piece, “Lucy, 15 Years Old,” shows a transgender teen trying on a dress for the first time. Louie Palu’s “Deported” is a black and white print showing a woman named Marisol lying on a blanket at a deportation center. Palu met her the night before she was forced to leave the United States.
Perhaps the most striking piece is a three-dimensional charcoal on wood mixed-media piece hanging from the ceiling. Adrián Román’s “Caja De Memoria Viva II: Constancia Colón de Clemente” tells the story of a Black Puerto Rican woman who migrated to the U.S. in the 1940s. While standing underneath the box the audience is literally inside Clemente’s head. Photographs, books and artifacts like a straightening comb hang from its walls. In a recording Clemente shares her story in Spanish.
“She’s talking about the racism she experienced in Puerto Rico and also in New York,” Verboort said. “You’re kind of inside her head, thinking of all the memories and experiences that make a person who they are which shows I think in our faces and in our expressions.”
The exhibition also includes light-hearted works. In “Thank You For Teaching Me English” Naoko Wowsugi created 14 portraits of people who helped the Japanese artist learn English. A word they taught her appears at the bottom of each frame. “Phantasmagoria,” “bureaucracy” and “smithereens” are just a few. Each person is shown with their mouths slightly open as if they are speaking mid-sentence.
A portrait show wouldn’t be complete without the pervasive selfie. It’s found in “A Moment in Time,” at the end of two rows of 17 individual portraits by Wendy Arbeit. She recreated self-portraits from the 1850s to today according to the style in line with each decade.
“The Outwin 2016” is filled with a diverse range of emotion from poignant private moments to delightful to just being. The portraits, all created in the last three years, came together through a contest. Though not selected to go together specifically, they somehow still create a collective reflection.
What: “The Outwin 2016: American Portraiture Today
When: Feb. 4 – May 14
Where: Tacoma Art Museum, 1701 Pacific Ave, Tacoma